A missed marketing opportunity
INSPIRE a generation", goes the slogan for the London 2012 Olympics. For NBC, the broadcaster with exclusive US rights to the games, the approach has been more like "Let’s wait until after that generation’s bedtime".
When Usain Bolt set a 100m Olympic record on Sunday, US viewers had to wait more than six hours until after 11pm eastern time to see the feat on TV. Similarly, anybody young enough to look up to gymnast Gabby Douglas, 16, or swimmer Missy Franklin, 17, should have been tucked up long before NBC aired their medal victories.
NBC has been tape-delaying such Olympic high points since there was tape to delay, but in past games, viewers were not on Twitter and Facebook to learn about the results before they aired and to protest under the #NBCfail hashtag.
NBC and others have pointed out the disconnect between such social media grousing and NBC’s healthy ratings.
On the first 10 nights, NBC’s Olympic audience averaged 33.6-million viewers, its highest for a non-US summer games since 1976.
Three in four viewers described NBC’s coverage as excellent or good, the Pew Research Centre found.
Having paid $1.18bn for the rights, and with prime-time advertising rates an estimated seven times higher than daytime pricing, NBC’s approach has a simple financial logic. The high ratings mean it now expects to break even on the games, which have given other NBC properties from the Today show to the Nightly News much-needed boosts. Advertisers who paid up to link their brands to an event with mass appeal also seem happy. But marketers should learn lessons from the mixed messages coming from social and traditional media.
With reliable audience figures still maddeningly hard to come by, advertisers have seized on social media sites’ potential for instant feedback. Dizzying details provided by social media analysts such as Bluefin Labs hold out the tantalising promise of more targeted advertising.
But the disproportionate attention given to the #NBCFail meme (which Trendrr.TV, a social TV intelligence service, says only accounted for less than 1% of the chatter) is a reminder of the limitations of these real-time focus groups.
Twitter and Facebook users are still far younger than the average NBC viewer. About 31% of 18-29 year-olds are following the games on social sites, Pew estimates, compared with 11% of 30-49 year olds, 6% of 50-64 year olds and just 2% of those 65 and older.
The Olympics should remind marketers not to lean too heavily on social media data alone, because the sample is not representative. Not yet, at least. The problem for NBC and its advertisers is that the social media minority is vocal, influential and growing fast.
There is another lesson in viewers’ mixed reactions. Most may still be content to wait on the couch for prime-time entertainment to be served up at NBC’s leisure, but viewer habits are fragmenting. Companies that cannot find ways of serving them all risk a backlash.
NBC made efforts to do just this, offering full live coverage online and on mobile devices to viewers who can verify that they subscribe to cable or satellite TV. It said last week it had seen 34-million live streams, up 333% on the rate for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
But spotty performance has led to poor reviews of its live streaming (Bolt’s 9.63-second dash was not the best moment to have buffering problems), and by limiting access to subscribers, NBC seems to treat live streaming as a threat to prime-time viewing.
The Super Bowl should be proof that broadcasters can charge advertisers top dollar for live sports in daylight hours.
The Olympics takes place during school holidays, too, and many afternoon viewers would anyway watch highlights later. Among those following the Olympics online, Pew found 79% also watched TV coverage.
NBC missed an opportunity to sell season passes to people with no pay-TV contract who would pay to watch on their laptop or iPad. If it included advertising, this need not cannibalise its core business.
This could have been a chance to get younger customers used to paying for content. Pay-TV companies such as Comcast, NBC’s owner, have seen little impact yet from cord-cutters (consumers unplugging cable TV), but they should worry about "cord nevers", younger Netflix and YouTube watchers who see no need to subscribe in the first place.
NBC will be able to claim success in the short term, but it is hard to imagine that the next generation has been inspired by its 20th century approach to London 2012.
©2012 The Financial Times Limited