The Monday Morning Quarterback

The Olympic Twitter Generation

The most-watched TV Olympics ever are now officially history and will, according to those in the know, more than likely will make an unexpected truckload of money.

In other words, despite Ryan Secrest’s best efforts, the London Olympics was a rousing success, even before the American women started collecting all that gold.

Nobody thought it would go as well as it did. All of the events were held earlier in the day, and today’s Twitterverse guaranteed that even the most diehard spoiler-avoider couldn’t manage to make it through the day without news of wins and losses.

In America, NBC controlled access to the Olympics by airing all of the competition live via video stream, but tape-delayed the big events on broadcast and cable TV – no live competition would take place during U.S. prime time. At first, social media was flooded with complaints. And NBC initially defended it’s position due to the longtime theory that fewer people would watch in prime time if they could see them live earlier.

There are lots of reasons for this, but knowing the results well in advance of most every event broadcast does turns out not to have dampened American viewers’ enthusiasm for watching the Games. A survey taken during the Games found that 43 percent of the people who watched the prime-time telecasts said they knew the results before tuning in. In fact, the research indicates that many Americans were informed through social media of that day’s medals as they were awarded – hours before the tape-delayed prime time broadcasts of the London events – and that made them more likely to want to watch them later that night.

The research undercuts an long-held assumption that has guided production of Olympic broadcasts from locales outside of U.S. time zones for decades: keep the results under your hat as much as possible, otherwise the audience will turn to other channels (which is what is believed to have happened during the relatively disappointing Seoul and Sydney Games).

NBC was also roundly criticized on social media for not televising most of the popular London Games events as they happened (like swimming, track and field and gymnastics) so they could be aired first in the more lucrative prime time hours.

Turns out, nearly two-thirds of people questioned in a survey said they watched the prime-time Olympics telecast even when they knew the results ahead of time. Plus, people who watched the events live earlier in the day – via online streaming – were more likely to watch the tape-delayed prime-time broadcast 50 percent longer than those who hadn’t.

This means that tape delay will most likely not become a thing of the past in future Olympics’ coverage. At least NBC isn’t saying anything just yet. They’re too busy counting the money.

But this year, NBC did encourage consumers to try accessing the Olympics in new ways. Of the people who viewed streaming video of the Olympics on tablets and other devices, more than 75% said they had never streamed video before on the devices.

Note that Olympics viewership was up 28 percent among teenagers over Beijing, even more sharply among teenage girls. That’s important because this year, the next Olympics generation was being cultivated.

The Summer Olympics became a money maker for all manner of media. Olympians graced the covers of People and Entertainment Weekly. They regularly made the front pages of newspapers. Dozens of athletes became household names. Even non-NBC networks jumped into the coverage with their own spins, including a news network that ignited a bizarre debate about Gold Medal gymnast (and future Wheaties box girl) Gabrielle Douglas, who did what every other gymnast has done for a generation of Olympics: wear a spectacular competition outfit of her own design instead of what the network termed the “patriotic, American, national brand” red, white and blue uniform. Unashamed, the network repeated this sour meme throughout the otherwise joyful Games.

Fortunately, a truckload of people were watching NBC from morning to night. NBC got far better ratings for the London Games than it ever expected, outpacing the popular 2008 Games in Beijing. Before the Games, NBC predicted it would lose some $200 million. Now they’ve got money in the bank, because their their strategy for viewers worked. They – and we – can look forward to using opportunities in newly developed technology they next time around.

We can only hope that technology will outpace Ryan Secrest.

– Art Reker, Account and Creative Executive