NBC defends Olympics coverage: Critics a 'loud minority'

NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus and NBC Research Group President Alan Wurtzel defended the network’s Summer Olympics coverage strategy during a conference call with reporters Thursday morning. Here’s the duo taking on several burning questions, including the network’s decision to tape-delay certain events.

How have the Olympics performed so far? Actually quite great. Ratings are up 10 percent from the last Summer Games in Beijing. The coverage package might show a profit for NBC instead of another $200+ million loss like in Vancouver in 2010. Lazarus says NBC’s affiliates, advertisers, and partners are all happy (plus some viewers too). “We couldn’t be more pleased by the results on all of our platforms,” Lazarus said. “We are over-delivering on every day part.”

Why isn’t more coverage live? From NBC’s perspective, more Olympics content is live than ever before. Across NBC and the Comcast cable networks, more than two thirds of the Games’ TV coverage has been live — 158.5 live television hours out of the 274 hours thus far telecast. Plus, there’s online streaming of the events. “No one has ever done this much live streaming before,” Lazarus said. There’s also certain inherent restrictions, Lazarus noted, to what a broadcast network can show live given the time difference from London and the fact many different Olympic events are happening simultaneously. Moreover, NBC’s research suggest — and critics are going to hate this — that being spoiled doesn’t hurt viewership. According to Wurtzel, 67 percent of viewers in one survey said they knew the day’s results and planned to watch NBC’s primetime coverage anyway, compared to 54 percent who did not hear the results.

OK, but if viewers knowing the results doesn’t hurt ratings, why not air major short events — like a Michael Phelps swimming race — live during the day and repeat it in primetime? (Like we suggested): When answering this question, Lazarus seemed to hint that NBC’s policy could change — eventually. “We will continue to innovate our coverage,” he said. “What we’re doing today is leaps and bounds ahead of the way the Olympics were handled in Beijing … be sure we’re analyzing everything. We’re really understanding the numbers and how our audience is consuming this and we’ll take all the data in and make future plans.”

Does NBC regret anything about its coverage? Yes, that Today promo that spoiled a race’s outcome. “We had an unfortunate incident where we didn’t have the backup system to our checks and balances when a promo might run and we’ve put that back in place,” Lazarus said. “We’ve apologized to the audience for that.”

What about that suspicious-seeming editing of Tuesday’s women’s gymnastics event that seemed to ignore the results of a Russian competitor in order to heighten the suspense for Team USA? “We did show the Russians’ results,” Lazarus said. “We did, in the interest of time, not show one of the floor exercises. It was producers’ decision that it was immaterial to the outcome. If you go back to nbcolympics.com and watch it there… our broadcast team did nothing to alter what the viewer would feel in terms of suspense. We are very clear that a Russian gymnast needed to be perfect, and that our team needed to not perform before the floor exercises ever started … It was clear the Russians did not do what they were capable of. Our broadcasters and graphics team laid in exactly what the [USA] team would need and the average [score] they needed was well below the lowest that we had done throughout the tournament and that, in all likelihood, without a major mishap, the U.S. team would win.”

And what about the intense social media criticism? According to NBC’s research, among users of social media, 82 percent surveyed say that the online buzz makes them more interested in watching the Olympics. “We’ve had some challenges and they’ve been documented … by some of the critics in social media who have new platforms to have their voices heard,” Lazarus said. “Some of it is, in fact, fair, and we are listening. … We’re trying new things and we knew it wouldn’t be perfect and we said that before the Games. We believe most of these issues are gone … as anything in a public forum, not everyone is going to be happy.”

Viewers would watch the Olympics on any channel. Is there any concern that the volume of the #NBCfail criticism could be brand damaging? “Everyone’s got the right to have their point of view,” Lazarus said. “But I think the overwhelming majority of the people are voting with their clickers and their mouses and their fingers on every device saying, ‘We’re with you, we enjoy what you’re doing, thank you, and please continue.’ We listen, we read, we understand there’s people that don’t like what we’re doing. We think it’s a very loud minority and the silent majority has been with us for these first six days.”


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