Running Rings Around Ratings Reality

For the second time in less than a year, and for the third time in four, NBC’s schedule is on hiatus due to Olympic coverage.  For the third consecutive Olympiad, NBC’s ratings have declined precipitously.  For the third consecutive Olympiad, media and financial pundits are eager to prey upon every shred of data that trickles out as justification to proclaim in apocalyptic tones how horrible this is for Comcast, TV sports and even America at large.

Yet again, it amuses me that so much is being said so early in a process by so many “experts” with so little context.  So let ne take a stab:

— Yes, it’s a BIG deal for Comcast and NBC.  They have just begun a new 10-year agreement valued at $7.6B for exclusive U.S. rights.  That deal was struck in May 2014.   

— At that time, broadcast television was dominant, cable television was relevant, NBC Sports Network was a priority with a brand-new investment for Premier League soccer to boost distribution and live content just begun, Peacock was not capitalized and referred to its logo, and streaming was a topic largely limited to urologist conventions.

–Now add to all of the third consecutive Olympiad being conducted in Asia, meaning primetime and late night events in the U.S. are being conducted the following day on the other side of the world, the fact that virtually every event is available via USA, CNBC or Peacock in real time live to supplement the extensive NBC coverage both live and time-shifted, and the fact that these particular games are being held in a country that a significant proportion of Americans blame for the source of a virus that has caused a still-raging pandemic that has now killed 900,000 people and politically fractured the country, perhaps irrevocably.  A Games which neither U.S. diplomats nor NHL players are attending and that NBC anchor Mike Tirico was hurriedly sent home from earlier this week to join his colleagues calling the action from the media mecca of Stamford, Connecticut.  (I’d imagine the takeout orders from Remo’s have spiked markedly this week).

So it’s understandable that the scrutiny of analysis is as white-hot as it’s ever been, and perhaps that’s a good thing.  At least people care about ratings, which is more than can be said for the balance of the media landscape these days.  Traditional television is consumed across multiple screens, heavily time-shifted and, at least as Nielsen is currently constructed, virtually impossible to accurately measure on a timely basis.  So to NBCU’s credit, the efforts of ex-Nielsen exec Kelly Abcarian to spearhead a measurement approach incorporating multiple yardsticks from over 70 companies is both timely and necessary.  And thanks to seasoned, intelligent veteran writers like The Hollywood Reporter’s Rick Porter, more measured and fair summaries are available for those who are smart enough to find them.  If you click below, I’ll save you the trouble of finding it.

The gist of Porter’s recap is that while percentage drops versus historic benchmarks are alarming in the context of the rapid evolution of the media landscape they are consistent with the rate or erosion and fractionization the industry is seeing in general.  NBC utilizes a “Frankenmetric” called Total Audience Delivery, a concept initially introduced by its former research czar Alan Wurtzel\ when they began to spread its coverage across multiple networks and platforms in multiple languages during the previous decade.  TAD combines Nielsen data with digital data from Adobe Analytics.  It also accounts for the concept of reach versus average audience, putting television audience measurement on a level playing field with digital and one especially crucial to an event largely being conducted in real time in the dead of night.   The Porter piece uses the TAD measures as its foundation, and immediately gives it more credence than many others out there.

For Peacock, a struggling SVOD service where specific data has otherwise been scarce, this has been a necessary shot in the arm.  As NBC bragged in its own press release, it had already exceeded one billion minutes of aggregate viewing by Sunday, the fastest yet for any Winter Games in any digital iteration.  Yes, this year there are more events available to more subscribers, plus a ton of free content to boot.  Unlike the complex and inconvenient navigations of prior years’ Games, Peacock provides one-stop shopping for all things Olympics on whatever screen you may be consuming content on.  Personally, while I have DirecTV and the streamlined three English language network plus enhanced coverage of the networks of NBCU I prefer the Peacock interface.  My focus group size of one notwithstanding, I have some degree of confidence it’s representative.

And Abcarian is also championing the concept of ROI as a barometer for success and thanks to the innovative team at iSpot concrete data is available to back her up. An advertiser cares far more about whether or not their message can be seen and how resonant it is when it is versus merely how many people see it.  iSpot measures ad load and value far more accurately than many of its more entrenched competitors, one reason I championed it for Sony during my most recent corporate gig.  Using iSpot data, NBCU reported that the opening weekend produced the following values for its advertising partners:

    • Across Sunday’s primetime coverage, NBCU ran a 33% lower ad load than the other broadcast networks and delivered 241% more ad impressions per unit than the other three broadcast networks combined.
    • For the third consecutive day, the Olympics took the #1 spot for ad impressions with a 24.2% share of voice – more than tripling the #2 show.
    • 14.5 million people viewed the advertising pod immediately after Mikaela Shiffrin’s race at 8:40 p.m. ET.

In simpler Leblanguage, what this means is that the companies that will ultimately determine whether the $7.6B on the table is accounted for are running spots in a less cluttered environment with greater reach than almost anything else they can buy anywhere and that despite lower overall audience deliveries spots that run after a key event can generate significantly larger ones, thus justifying NBCU’s desire to charge more for them.

But even with all of this ammo, this political landscape gives NBCU the additional challenge of having to walk away from certain advertisers who are willing to pay rack rate.  It refused to allow an ad purchased by Florida congressman Mike Waltz that was critical of China’s alleged human rights abuse policies that was scheduled to run in the Washington, D.C. market.  It also featured the endorsement of NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom, a Swiss-born Turk who has been an outspoken critic of sports’ support for a regime that has been accused of genocide against Uyghur Muslims.  The ad, which urged the boycott of companies sponsoring what they called the “Genocide Games”, was rejected due to its inclusion of unauthorized corporate logos in it.  China chose an Uyghur athlete as one of its two torch-lighters during the opening ceremony, perceived by many as a thumb in the face of a critical world.

As this new deal unfolds, future Olympiads will be airing in more U.S.-friendly time zones, including the holy grail of the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. By the time the Olympics return to America there’s literally no telling what world will exist.  We could be in the last days of a second Trump presidency, and Peacock may no longer exist.  For that matter, NBCU may no longer exist.  Remember, in 2016 a great deal of the Rio games aired on NBCSN and Bravo, and Barack Obama was president.

Ring me in ’28 and we’ll compare notes.  Or sooner, please.

Until next time…

How Winter Olympics TV Ratings Stack Up After First Weekend – The Hollywood Reporter

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