What NBC Sports Can Learn From Eurosport’s Approach to Live International Events

Audiences watch live, no matter what time of day or night

The time zone-friendly Rio Olympics was only an hour ahead of the East Coast, but NBC's prime-time ratings still suffered double-digit declines from the 2012 Summer Games in London. That could spell trouble for NBC's next three Olympics, all of which will be held on the other side of the globe: winter 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea (13 hours ahead of the East Coast); summer 2020 in Tokyo (also 13 hours ahead): and the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022 (12 hours ahead).

And while NBC seems content to stick to its strategy of focusing on taped, curated highlights during its prime-time coverage while offering digital livestreaming of the events, it could potentially bolster its ratings by looking at how networks like Eurosport cover international live sporting events.

Eurosport, now owned by Discovery Communications—it first invested in the network in 2012 and bought it outright in 2015—has landed exclusive Olympics rights in Europe, beginning with the 2018 Winter Games and stretching to 2024. But the company, whose three networks reach 93 countries in Europe, Asia and Australia, already airs several major international events, including the U.S. Open, which is currently in progress.

NBC's prime-time Rio coverage averaged a 14.5 household rating, down 17 percent from 2012's 17.5 rating, which was around the number NBCUniversal guaranteed advertisers for the 2016 Games. While the network delivered its makegoods to advertisers during the Olympics, earlier this week, NBC Sports said its ad sales chief, Seth Winter, was stepping down. A source insisted Winter's departure had nothing to do with the Summer Olympics missing guarantees.

But as NBCUniversal tries to reverse those ratings declines, Eurosport CEO Peter Hutton says the company needs to stop airing Olympics events on a tape delay.

"In an environment with social media, to believe that you can hold back the story is not achievable," said Hutton, who spoke with reporters Thursday in New York. "You can't really judge other people's markets but I think for us, the expectation is always going to be that every event will be live."

And while NBC did offer that option for the most part, at least digitally (though the opening and closing ceremonies were broadcast and streamed on a delay, frustrating viewers), Eurosport takes a more aggressive approach to encouraging its viewers to watch sports live, no matter the hour, day or night. 

Because the U.S. Open's night games take place in the middle of the night in Europe, Eurosport's marketing efforts are centered around getting viewers to wake up very early (or stay up late) to watch those matches. The promos position the event as a huge New York celebration, informing audiences that if they want to "make it in New York," they'll need to "party all night long"—i.e., stay up and watch the Open.

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That promo is airing not only on Eurosport networks, but also on many of Discovery's international channels.

"You can really push your content to a much wider audience by using the Discovery family, and that's something that Eurosport never had before," said Hutton. "And I think that's one of the reasons the [ratings] have gone up."

Eurospot has gone a step further than airing promos, enlisting European tennis stars like Angelique Kerber, who will play in the women's singles final on Saturday, and Andy Murray to record "wake-up calls," which audiences could register for on their Eurosport Player.

"So you set your alarm, and at 2 in the morning your phone goes [off], and Kerber goes, 'I'm on now. Can you come and watch me?'" said Hutton, who told Adweek he'll also explore that approach for the Olympics. 

Hutton said Eurosport should be able to capitalize on its multiyear rights to many big Olympic sports like swimming, soccer and skiing to give audiences a "continuity" and "year-round story" to keep them engaged between the games every four years.

"What you don't want is a stand-alone peak, and then it goes nowhere," Hutton said. "You need a legacy that you try to build into a year-round product, as opposed to two weeks of content."

But while NBC might be able to use some of Eurosport's technique to bolster its own Olympics audience, Eurosport, in turn, will take a page out of NBC's playbook and put together human interest feature stories around Olympics athletes.

"That's the beauty of package programming is the creation of human interest stories that therefore appeal to a wider audience," Hutton said. "Maybe a sports channel isn't the right place for those sorts of a stories, but maybe one of the other Discovery channels is."