The first and foremost is this: Content is still king. Viewers tune in for compelling story lines and dramatic visuals. The Chinese knew that; thus the mind-blowing opening ceremony. And NBC was extremely lucky to have Michael Phelps, Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson in these games. Given a choice between "reality" shows and reality, viewers went with reality. In a media world sliced and diced to give every niche a little taste of what it wants, NBC managed to showcase on its broadcast network those big events that still delivered something resembling a mass market, thus proving live events such as the Olympics and Super Bowl are still worth their price.
NBC was not disappointed. And the network, for the most part, did not disappoint. Yes, there were those sappy stories and too many announcers who didn't seem to know when to shut up. But NBC didn't muck up the broadcasts with heavy-handed promotion for other shows. Anyone who sits through a typical Super Bowl can walk away feeling like they've viewed a three-hour commercial for the hosting network. Not only are Super Bowl pods cluttered with network self-promotion, the on-air talent is sometimes forced to read copy as well. There's another lesson there: Respect the consumer.
Then there's the issue of transparency. We've spilled a lot of ink on this issue before -- and marketers surely talk the talk these days. But everyone should take note that not even the government of China could keep everything under wraps. The "fake" fireworks, the underage gymnasts, the dancer injured during rehearsals for the opening ceremonies -- these things all came to light. And it wasn't the end of the world. (Granted, NBC didn't exactly devote time to China's overall record, and the Russia-Georgia imbroglio served as a convenient distraction.)
Ultimately, China and NBC both won. It remains to be seen whether the participating marketers made much headway in the U.S. -- Nike and Adidas may feel eclipsed by Speedo, for example. But such gains would have been incremental anyway. The big prizes were in China, and initial reports indicate that efforts will probably pay off there, where consumers aren't so jaded about branding and are hungry for new opportunities.