NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- NBC Universal likely won't turn a profit off its broadcast of the Winter Olympics this year, but it hopes the research it performs on the event's massive audience might generate additional ad revenue in the days and months after the last gold-medal hockey skate has left the ice.
The media giant, in the midst of parent General Electric's transfer of majority ownership to Comcast Corp., intends to ratchet up its examination of Olympics viewers' media-consumption habits, building off a big test it performed during the 2008 Summer Olympics broadcast from Beijing.
In one study during that event, NBC gave 41 Olympics enthusiasts a mobile-phone-based monitoring system that recorded how they were exposed to the Olympic events, and for how long. Using technology provided by IMMI, a San Mateo, Calif., measurement concern, NBC tracked a 23-year-old Miami woman, for example, for one day as she jumped between the TV, the internet and a mobile device.
Repeat luge views
Now NBC wants to push further. Using equipment provided by Arbitron and internet-usage data from Omniture and ComScore, NBC intends to examine how the same person uses both TV and the web during the Olympics, then extrapolate those numbers to a broader population. Data will also track the kind of video people watch online, even noting whether the selections are something being watched for the first time or if they represent a repeat view of an event already watched on TV.
NBC could use some of the results to prod advertisers to spend more money on web advertising -- if research reveals that such web advertising helps bolster recall and likeability for ads in rotation on TV.
For many of its participants, the Olympics represent the culmination of years of training. But for Alan Wurtzel, president-research at NBC Universal, the event is a giant laboratory for analyzing emerging TV-viewer behavior. With more consumers comfortable with getting video entertainment from a hand-held device or a office computer screen -- and plenty still watching on old standbys like sports bar TVs -- pinning a significant number of consumers down for study can prove difficult.
Rare research opportunity
Because the Olympics unite diverse audiences in the viewing of a single event -- and because they last for more than two weeks -- broadcasts of its events on NBC and sister cable outlets USA, CNBC and MSNBC provide the media outlet with millions of potential subjects to analyze.
Mr. Wurtzel projected this coming broadcast of the Winter Olympics could bring in as many as 200 million total viewers. That would mark a significant jump over previous Winter Olympics viewership. NBC Universal's broadcasts of the 2006 Winter Olympics from Turin, Italy, reached a total of 184 million viewers, according to the company, while its broadcasts of the 2002 Winter Olympics from Salt Lake City, Utah, reached a total of 187 million.
The network has lots of impetus to use the coming Olympics broadcast to its advantage. During a recent conference call with investors, General Electric executives indicated the broadcast could lose as much as $250 million, a nod to the high fees networks pay for rights to big-ticket events even as competition for viewers increases. GE executives suggested, nonetheless, that ad revenue for the event could come to as much as $650 million to $700 million, which would represent an increase over past events.
Helping you forget Jay Leno
NBC is also likely to use the Olympics to purge viewers' minds of recent difficulties with its prime-time and late-night line-ups. By using the Olympics to fill a large part of its February prime-time schedule, NBC is hoping audiences forget about its lackluster 10 p.m. "Jay Leno Show" even as it bombards them with promos for Mr. Leno's reappearance on "Tonight" as well as the debuts of new shows such as "Parenthood" and "The Marriage Ref."
Meanwhile, Mr. Wurtzel sees a chance to "accelerate" new consumer behavior. Big events such as the Olympics, he suggested, often get viewers to test out new viewing behaviors, simply because the event has such a high water-cooler quotient.
The trick will be for NBC to identify not only what people watch in each venue, but also why they are doing so. Why might a person use a mobile phone to watch the Olympics when he is near a TV at home? What prompts someone to go online even while she is watching TV?
Mr. Wurtzel is enlisting IMMI once again to track individual participants across different viewing occasions as well as exposure to TV, internet and mobile devices. The company will also track individuals' exposure to more than 100 different websites related to the Olympics and the kind of video they are watching.
NBC Universal also intends to track how consumers talk about what they see while they watch the Olympics, including the commercials. Mr. Wurtzel said he has established pacts with Keller-Fay Group, a word-of-mouth analytics concern, to measure so-called "viral" spread of Olympics-related topics, whether through talking face to face, phone conversations or internet communication. The pact will help NBC analyze the use of social networking, which was not as established a medium when the Summer Olympics took place in Beijing.
And NBC has recently entered into an agreement with Google to track searches for what it broadcasts on TV and tie those searches back to a particular moment of exposure. TiVo data will play a part as well in NBC's analysis, providing second-by-second set-top box data on audience retention during Olympics programming and the commercials that support it.
The Olympics lets NBC Universal "take a pretty good stab" at analyzing emerging audience behavior, said Mr. Wurtzel; the task might otherwise be infinitely more difficult "in a world of such enormous fractionalization."
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