NBC Universal's broadcasts of the Olympics from London this summer will be filled with the usual athletic contests: synchronized swimming, basketball and canoe sprinting, among others. Behind the scenes, however, NBC will engage in a different sort of game: tablet counting.
Mindful that audiences are no longer relying solely on TV to get all their video content, NBC Universal will use the Olympics to set up a system that purports to count viewers across all the different ways they now watch their shows. NBCU has enlisted Google and ComScore to analyze what is known in the industry as "single source" consumption, or individual, unduplicated viewership patterns, across video shown via TV, mobile devices, personal computers and tablets.
Among the behaviors the effort might measure are whether Olympics viewers use TVs or other devices to watch a particular event, or how fans use two devices simultaneously and in tandem to get information or video, said Joan FitzGerald, VP-television and cross media at comScore. Executives will also be looking at how viewers share the content they see across social networks.
This isn't the first time NBCU has set up an Olympics "lab." The media company has attempted to use its Olympics broadcasts from Beijing in 2008 and Vancouver in 2010 as data-generators on video consumption. The London broadcasts will be different in that smartphone and tablet penetration among consumers is decidedly more advanced, suggested Alan Wurtzel, president-research and media development for NBC Universal, who believes the information he collects will be critical for any TV outlet that wants to navigate a quickly changing terrain.
"Advertisers absolutely want to begin to reach consumers across all these platforms, and we need, as an industry, to understand how these consumers are behaving," he said.
The Olympics offers a rare opportunity for the media industry. While the Super Bowl may be the most-watched event each TV season, the Olympics is unrivaled in its ability to deliver massive audiences over a sustained period of time -- 17 days, this go-round -- and across multiple broadcast and cable networks. In the past, NBC Universal has broadcast different Olympic events not only on NBC, but also on cable-news outlets like CNBC and MSNBC, and on its Spanish-language broadcasting unit Telemundo.
The chief objective is to observe the use of different devices by specific consumers as they use Olympics video content from NBC Universal across various channels, online services and apps. Google will focus on a panel of approximately 3,000 respondents, while ComScore will use a new 10,000-member panel that follows individuals as they move between TV and online venues, focusing on several hundred "Olympic enthusiasts" who plan to follow the Games across different media venues. ComScore will use set-top boxes, electronic meters and panelist self-reports to determine how fans experience the Olympics.
Other measurement initiatives are set to be announced soon, said Mr. Wurtzel. In past Olympics, NBCU has partnered with such companies as IMMI, Keller-Fay, Arbitron and TiVo to analyze viewers' Olympics behavior.
At Google, there's a pronounced interest in tracking a single consumer as he or she moves from video device to video device, said Tony Fagan, the company's research director. "We'd like to understand how the behavior interacts across the so-called 'four screens': TV, PC, mobile phones and tablets," he said.
No one involved in the project believes the Olympics research will provide a broad sketch of current use by an average viewer. For one thing, not every Olympics viewer -- or every U.S. couch potato, for that matter -- has access to, or can afford, multiple devices and alternate screens. Instead, the project "helps a little more in future planning than in measuring the static state today," said ComScore's Ms. FitzGerald. "As a content provider, you want to say, 'Well, maybe I should make more content available' or 'Maybe I shouldn't make it available.'"
While the emphasis may be on the future, Mr. Wurtzel's efforts at each Olympiad do shine a light on which emerging audiences of the present are looming larger on the TV networks' radar. As the traditional TV audience continues to migrate to other sources of video, the networks are seeing their traditional program ratings winnowed. So pressing is the situation that some smaller outlets, including the CW and Time Warner 's TBS, have pushed advertisers to consider the active digital audiences for such properties as "Gossip Girl" or "Conan."
"It's almost like the old metrics don't apply anymore," said Mr. Wurtzel. "If you want to see the future, you have to invent it."
His project may also get scrutiny from Comcast Corp., NBCU's new controlling parent. The London Olympics broadcast will be the first under the aegis of the Philadelphia-based cable distributor and new NBCU CEO Steve Burke. Comcast recently agreed to a pact valued at $4.3 billion that will keep the Olympics broadcasts at NBC Universal through 2020. In past talks with investors, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts has vowed to make the Olympics broadcasts profitable.