Winter Olympics — not the cavalry it used to be

As we moved through the months of 2005, media analysts — especially those with expertise in TV advertising — pointed to the fact that 2006 would provide relief for embattled broadcasters, because it’s an Olympic and mid-term election year. The thinking was that these events were traditional mass marketing blockbusters that would provide an ad revenue lift for everybody. A handful of us, however, warned that anything “traditional” is problematic in the new media world, and we’re seeing the fruit of that with the Olympics so far.

The spinners are spinning — and it’s far too early to draw safe conclusions — but it’s clear to me that the following factors are at work this year that weren’t at work as early as two years ago.

  1. NBC is offering unbundled video clips for download, which gives those interested a new way of accessing highlights. The network also has boosted other online options for coverage, as reported by Cory Bergman at Lost Remote:
    Compared to Athens two years ago,’s pageviews are up 63 percent, thanks in part to 1) a much-improved relationship with NBC affiliates through shared sites called Olympic Zones 2) a wider distribution strategy, from Google Video to ESPN 3) and more aggressive marketing to young people, including the site “We found that the more content we make available, the more buzz we create,” said Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics.
    While this has been good for the network overall, it has doubtless impacted traditional television viewing.
  2. Competing networks are pulling out the stops with new programming, which is giving viewers options. They’re taking them too. For the first time in 18 years, a non-Olympics network won Sunday night 18–49 viewing (ABC). Fox and ABC are taking the most aggressive approach. CBS is offering “Survivor” on Thursday nights. In the past, it was standard operating procedure to simply let the Olympics network have its way.
  3. Interest in the Olympics has been measured geographically and shows weakness in all but the Northern states. While many will complain that an ESPN Sports Nation poll isn’t “scientific,” and others would argue that it’s merely common sense, the noticeable lack of interest in Southern markets undercuts the notion that the games have universal appeal. This is also confirmed by ratings in major Southern cities like Houston, Charlotte and Atlanta, where the numbers have been below the overall averages.
  4. We’ve also learned that NBC is packing more commercials into ad pods, presumably to reach their budget goals. According to MediaDailyNews, the length of commercial breaks is up 14% this year. The more the network struggles to make its bottom line, the more it drives people to other forms of coverage, and that will impact future Olympic games on-the-air.

What this has done is to render yet another industry tradition unreliable, and that sends an ominous message for the future. You just can’t count on the way things used to be anymore, and I believe the next lesson on the horizon will come from the 2006 midterm elections. If I was a broadcaster, I’d be very cautious with budget projections this fall.


  1. Terry,

    I think you’re right about the money end but would like to bring up another point.
    The Office on NBC has seen it’s ratings increase on air becasue of it new distribution outlets and today in the Wall Street Journal in the Marketplace Section a headline read, “WARNER MUSIC’S EARNINGS SURGE 92% ON DIGITAL SALES, LOWER COSTS.”

    Perhaps the new distribution will benefit the Olympics in the long run. It also wouldn’t hurt if NBC would just show everything live all day long on NBC instead A) holding it until prime-time and B) making you flip around 4–5 different channels to find what you want to watch.

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