NBC Tracks Olympic Viewers Wherever They're Watching

Cellphone Technology Lets Net Follow Enthusiasts From TV to Mobile to Web

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The remarkable ratings and billion bucks in ad revenue from the 2008 Beijing Olympics weren't the only things NBC Universal got out of its two weeks of broadcasting the games. The company may also have hit upon a method for measuring video consumption, as viewers moved from TV screens to computer terminals and mobile devices.
Usain Bolt: He and others have won NBC a TV audience of 207 million so far and drawn nearly 42 million unique visitors to its Olympic site.
Usain Bolt: He and others have won NBC a TV audience of 207 million so far and drawn nearly 42 million unique visitors to its Olympic site. Credit: Thomas Kienzle

As part of a broad effort to measure viewer activity, NBC gave 41 Olympics enthusiasts a mobile-phone-based monitoring system that would record how they were exposed to the Olympic events, and for how long. Using technology provided by IMMI, a San Mateo, Calif., measurement concern, NBC was able to track a 23-year-old Miami woman, for example, and follow along Aug. 9 as she jumped between the TV, the internet and a mobile device.

"We're beginning to crack the code on the interplay between media platforms," said Alan Wurtzel, NBC Universal's president-research and media development.

Obviously the panel can't be used as any sort of representative sample. NBC deliberately sought out people who would be heavy Olympics users and were also familiar with new technology -- not to mention that it was a very small group. Still, Mr. Wurtzel is hoping the study will provide "baby steps" in the ongoing quest to follow audiences as they seek out content on multiple platforms.

That, of course, would be a boon to TV networks, who have been hard-pressed to monetize audiences watching expensive TV shows online or on iPods -- activities that do little to boost TV ratings, which help determine ad prices. Mr. Wurtzel said about 75% of Olympics viewing by panelists in the IMMI study took place via TV. The study also found that web and mobile users were the ones who were most actively interested in the Olympics -- they watched twice as much Olympics content on TV as those who watched the games only on TV. About half the people who used the web and TV used the two simultaneously at some point, Mr. Wurtzel said. The average length of a mobile session was four minutes, while an average online session was 35 minutes with streaming video and 11 minutes without it; an average TV session before "tune-away" was eight minutes, he said.

Shot in the arm
The Olympics have given NBC, which lagged its peers significantly during the 2007-08 TV season, a bona fide shot in the arm. Through 14 days, NBC Universal said its Olympic coverage reached 207 million viewers, just two million below the 17-day total for the 1996 Atlanta games, the most-viewed event in U.S. TV history, according to data from Nielsen Media Research. That 207 million is 11 million more than the 14-day total for Athens in 2004 and 5 million more than Atlanta. NBC Universal said its coverage has reached more than 85% of U.S. TV homes. After 12 days of Olympics broadcasting, NBC said, nearly 42 million unique users had visited NBCOlympics.com, viewed 912 million pages and watched more than 56 million video streams. An average of 1.5 million unique visitors surfed to NBCOlympics.com each day, according to Nielsen.

NBC sold more than $1 billion in ad time for the event and was even able to sell at least $25 million more in inventory it had hoarded in case it had to offer up "make goods" to advertisers in the event the ratings were less than what the network had guaranteed. A 30-second spot in some cases went for as much as $750,000, according to a person familiar with the situation, though in many cases advertisers purchased broader packages of ad time.

Ratings were driven by the performance of U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, who won a record-setting eight medals. He "has given this thing a turbo-charge," said Seth Winter, senior VP-sales and marketing, NBC Sports and Olympics. The fact that ratings were slightly less robust afterward troubled neither buyers nor NBC. Both parties expected the trend. "Typically you do see a little bit of a drawback in the second week," said Sam Sussman, senior VP-director of sports activation at Publicis Groupe's Starcom USA. "Any way you look at it, though, you are going to land up, even if it does fall back a little."

Going into the event, NBC was haunted by defeat. When the games were in Sydney in 2000, the network was crimped by time delays, and ratings were among the lowest in recent memory. This time it made a point of guaranteeing key events would be held in the morning in Beijing so they could be shown live in U.S. prime time.

Online-video ads lag behind

NBC Universal may have scored a ratings bonanza with Olympics TV ratings, website traffic and online-video streaming, but it looks like it dropped the baton when it came time to sell ads in its online videos.

Online-marketing-research firm eMarketer estimates that video-ad spending on NBCOlympics.com will reach $5.75 million, 1.1% of the total $505 million it projects marketers will spend on online-video ads in 2008.

So why is the web still a small piece of NBC's Olympic pie, which is on pace to add as much as an additional $50 million in ads from the past two weeks alone? David Hallerman, a senior analyst at eMarketer, pointed to limited streams of the Olympics' most popular events (no swimming, gymnastics, volleyball or boxing) and the download of Microsoft's Silverlight video player.

"Any time you force an audience to download something, you're going to eliminate some of the audience, partially because of the extra step and partially because the software didn't support some operating systems on Windows or Mac behind certain firewalls," Mr. Hallerman said.

But perhaps the overhyping of Olympics inventory is just another sign of the inflated online-ad market, for which Mr. Hallerman has twice reduced his 2008 estimates already. Yet he remains bullish that video will be the highest growth sector in internet advertising and more than double its revenue to $1.15 billion in 2010.
-- Andrew Hampp
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