For so long, live sports were the one remaining chip that pay TV had to keep people from cutting the cord. But that chip is slowly losing its value, as Twitter scoops up more streaming sports, and ESPN considers launching its own streaming service.
And for this year’s Olympics, NBC is letting more people see highlights on its NBC Sports app, while limiting live-streams to pay TV subscribers. The result is that NBC has seen a big shift from TV viewing to streaming for the Games in Rio — but all views are off from the highs in London in 2012.
As CNN’s Frank Pallotta put it, “After six days of prime time coverage, the NBC broadcast network is averaging 28.1 million viewers, about 20 percent fewer than it had during the London games in 2012. The totals are almost 10 percent lower than the Beijing games in 2008.”
And consumption habits have changed drastically since eight years ago, and even four years ago — with a lot more people consuming sports content on digital devices. But still, NBC attracted between 20.6 million and 33.4 million viewers on its broadcast network alone this year, according to Nielsen data. “Those are really big numbers by today’s standards,” Barry Lowenthal, president of media buying firm The Media Kitchen, told Reuters. NBC also saw a bump in TV ratings last Thursday thanks to emotional wins from popular Olympians — ratings which were quadruple the ratings of CBS, ABC and Fox combined.
Comparing any year to London requires some context: London’s 2012 opening ceremonies attracted 40.7 million viewers. That’s tough competition for anyone.
Hooked on Highlights
So it’s important not to discount these TV numbers, as well as not to overestimate how much growth is coming in through digital streams. Sure, NBC recently recorded its 100 billionth minute of live streaming, but the combined online and television network viewership in the first five days of the games was still 8.6 percent lower than the recorded numbers during 2012.
Online growth may be helping to offset the decline in TV ratings, but it may just be that the overall digital landscape — with people catching only the short clips of the highlights online and breaking news alerts coming onto phones before competitions are aired on tape delay — is making it more difficult to sit and watch a game continuously anywhere. With Hulu and Netflix and Amazon, as well as traditional TV programming, there’s a lot of competition for our attention.
“It’s not that we’re watching less, it’s that we’re watching more than three channels,” Victor Matheson, a professor at the College of the Holy Cross, told the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Flint and Suzanne Vranica.
Advertising Remains in the Mix
Consumers have also become accustomed to one of the boons of streaming and on-demand viewership, which is that they don’t have to sit through ads. But the opposite is true with these Olympics. It’s harder to escape ads, whether you’re watching live to catch the action as it happens, or watching highlights on the app, where ads are shown at the beginning of each clip. And that adds up to quite a lot when the app continually crashes. (Of course the best way to avoid ads is to skip them on your DVR.)
Another potential relief from ads might come if Comcast (which has paid for the U.S. rights to broadcast the Olympics through 2032) offers a subscription package to consumers that eliminates ads entirely. That could be a way for the company to monetize that impatience.
In some ways, the challenge of reaching more fans — whether through traditional or newer mediums — is the challenge of knowing who those fans are and what they want. It’s not necessarily the case that all TV viewers will eventually migrate online. It’s also worth noting that this year is a bit exceptional with other news stories distracting audiences. From the presidential elections (whose conventions were also live-streamed) to the anxiety over the Zika virus, distractions from breaking news stories and events has been boundless. It could be easy for any sports event — yes, even the Olympics — to simply creep up on a person.
But no matter how you slice it — TV, social media, app, DVR, streaming, etc. — the Olympics are one of those cornerstone events that will always bring in paydays to networks, no matter how people get the content.