For NBCUniversal, the Olympic Games brought the thrill of breaking even -- and the shutting up of the naysayers.
As the dust of the track settles, and the stats and data shake out, NBC's coverage of the world's biggest sporting event, on network TV, cable, and the Web, looks good enough to earn a medal.
Despite programming glitches, confusion over venues and schedules, and #nbcfail (see below), London 2012 is a win for Comcast Corp., the Philadelphia-based majority owner of NBCUniversal. Plus this: A Comcast effort to cross-link and cross-promote all content among all media platforms may well be the look of the future for big news and entertainment.
Especially if NBC makes money. Which it might. Early forecasters saw a $200 million loss. But Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports Group, said that, while a full accounting is a few weeks off, "we believe we will break even and might finish with a small profit." That would be welcome after NBC's $223 million loss with the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
At the start, London 2012 did not look good. Many viewers, especially in the Twitterverse and blogosphere, moaned bitterly that NBC was tape-delaying major events for prime time. (Everything was available live online, but not on TV.) A sample tweet, from @tomwatson: "Never in the field of human endeavor have so many labored to give so few live Olympic events -- Winston Churchill #nbcfail." That #nbcfail is a Twitter "hashtag," meant to organize discussion and protest.
Lazarus acknowledged that, with so much offered so many places, there were communications gaps and confusion. "We can continue to improve on that," he said. A few odd programming moves didn't help. Their Finest Hour, a World War II documentary hosted by Tom Brokaw, ran Saturday in prime time. Twitter hemorrhage, from @flytip: "Insanity. How does NBC think it's OK to show a WWII documentary during prime-time on a Sat. night instead of showing the Olympics?"
But NBC rolled out a massive effort, befitting the $1.18 billion it paid for U.S. rights. Try 5,535 broadcast hours (almost 71/2 months' worth) over the national network, eight cable channels -- NBC Sports Network, MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo, Telemundo, two specialty channels, and one 3-D channel -- and online at NBCOlympics.com. The hours available more than doubled the previous record, set at the 2008 games in Beijing.
People watched. Nielsen figures say that over the course of 17 Olympic nights, NBC averaged 31.1 million viewers daily on TV. Though some had predicted a downturn in audience, NBC coverage attracted 219.4 million viewers for at least six minutes (the Nielsen minimum), more than the 215 million for Beijing. That makes London 2012 the most-watched event in U.S. TV history.
"That's a surprise," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. "In this era, when mega-events are drawing less audience, because there's so much competition for attention, this one broke the pattern. Part of it is probably the social-media component."
What of #nbcfail? That, too, faded. NBC said only 0.5 percent of the 150 million tweets during the Olympics -- 750,000 -- had the hashtag.
The point is, people did sit down and watch. According to Nielsen figures, the audience started big and stayed big. Also, viewers told pollsters: A Pew Research Center poll found that 77 percent of TV watchers rated coverage good or excellent, as did 70 percent of social media/online users.
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