London 2012: NBC on Record Ratings Pace

Fury over tape delays no hurdle for Nielsen deliveries

Despite all the agita over NBC’s coverage of the 2012 London Olympic Games, fans continue to tune in to the prime-time broadcasts in record numbers.

According to Nielsen, Friday night’s Opening Ceremony averaged 40.7 million total viewers, obliterating all previously held records for a Summer Olympics broadcast. Danny Boyle’s celebration of British history—an eye-popping pageant that incorporated everything from a tribute to the National Health Service to the base-jumping tandem of James Bond and Queen Elizabeth II—beat out the awesome-in-every-sense-of-the-word spectacle of the Beijing opener (34.9 million viewers) by 17 percent.

The previous high-water mark for an Opening Ceremony was set at the 1996 Atlanta Games, which attracted 39.8 million viewers.

If NBC’s tape-delayed opener didn’t always connect with the Twitterati—viewers were particularly incensed by the omission of a tribute to the victims of the July 7, 2005, London terror attacks—the gaffes didn’t seem to have a material impact on America’s enthusiasm for watching the Games on TV. On Saturday, 28.7 million viewers tuned in between approximately 8:30 p.m. EDT and 11:30 p.m. EDT, marking a 9 percent improvement from the previous record holder (Atlanta, 26.3 million viewers). 

Boosted by U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte’s gold medal performance in the 400-meter individual medley, Saturday night’s broadcast also topped deliveries for the first night of competition in Beijing by 20 percent.

The first two nights of the London Games represent the best start for an Olympics broadcast package on record. NBC’s Friday-Saturday prime-time average of 35.6 million viewers bested Atlanta’s 33.3 million by 7 percent and topped Beijing’s 29.5 million by 21 percent.

The latter result is of particular interest, as it compares to the live coverage of U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps’ first gold medal swim in Beijing. (He would go on to win eight.)

NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus said the early numbers were proof that NBC’s live streaming/tape-delay mashup offered fans the best of both worlds. “This audience number … is a great early sign that our strategy of driving people to watch NBC in prime time is working,” Lazarus said.

Thus far, NBC’s Olympic ratings continue to perform. Per Nielsen fast national data, Sunday night’s package of marquee swimming and gymnastics events drew 36 million viewers between 7 p.m. EDT and 11:15 p.m. EDT. This marks a 12 percent increase from the 32.3 million viewers NBC averaged on the second night of competition in Beijing.

Through three nights, NBC is averaging 35.8 million viewers, the best through the first weekend for any Summer Olympics in history. (The 1960 Rome Olympics was the first to be televised in the U.S.) By comparison the three-night average for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics was 34.4 million, while the comparable period in the Beijing Games delivered 30.6 million.

Sunday night’s tape-delayed broadcast featured U.S. swimmer Dana Vollmer’s gold/world record time in the women’s 100-meter butterfly and the men’s 4×100 freestyle relay. Also on offer was the emotional qualifier for the women’s all-around gymnastics competition. In a shocking turn of events, the defending world champ and prohibitive favorite, Jordyn Wieber, failed to advance to the all-around final after making a few uncharacteristic errors. Her teammates Gabby Douglas and Alexandra Raisman will represent the U.S. in Tuesday’s team final.

As of today, fans have not relented in their criticisms of NBC, appending the #NBCFail hashtag to their splenetic tweets in what amounts to a national howl of outrage and frustration. And the more savvy commentators among them have begun spreading the word about proxy services, anonymizers that allow a fan in the U.S. access to the BBC iPlayer, which offers up to 24 streams of live coverage.

Given the strength of the ratings, don’t expect NBC to alter course any time soon. Advertisers have ponied up as much as $725,000 for each 30-second prime-time spot, and with those record deliveries, NBC is far outdelivering its ratings guarantees. 

No, this is not the best way to present the global spectacle that is the Olympics, but NBC clearly believes it is taking the most measured approach to protect its $1.28 billion investment in the London Games. And with some $1 billion in ad sales and another $200 million in local TV and digital ad revenue, the Peacock may actually break even.

As viewers grapple with the immediate impact of NBC’s broadcast strategy—even those who have gone the live-streaming route have concerns about the quality of the video—it’s worth noting that NBC owns the rights to the next four Olympics, having laid out $4.38 billion for a package that extends through 2020. For a demonstration of how the network applies the lessons learned from London, fans will have to wait for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.