NBC defends Olympics coverage while acknowledging mistakes

Thu Aug 2, 2012 2:30pm EDT

A file photo of Mark Lazarus taken July 10, 2003. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

A file photo of Mark Lazarus taken July 10, 2003.

Credit: Reuters/Fred Prouser

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(Reuters) - NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus gave an impassioned defense of the network's Olympics coverage on a conference call Thursday, but conceded some of the criticism leveled at the network has been "fair."

Lazarus, along with NBC Research President Alan Wurtzel, addressed gripes about tape-delaying events to air in prime-time by noting that NBC's stable of TV networks has so far aired two-thirds of the events from London live, about 158.5 live hours out of 274 total hours.

Lazarus said the London Games' tape-delayed prime-time ratings despite the complaints have so far topped the live prime-time ratings for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. So far, NBC has averaged more than 30 million viewers for the games, making it the highest-rated Olympics, surpassing the 1996 summer games in Atlanta.

On the business side, he said NBC, which at one point stood to lose $200 million on the event, now has a small chance of making "a little bit of money" because of the strong ratings performance.

Comcast, which owns NBC Universal, said on Wednesday that it stands to break even on the London games.

A small, but vocal contingent of critics have stormed Twitter, Facebook and other social media, decrying the network's tape-delayed broadcasts, technical glitches with online streaming, heavy promotions and even its cast of commentators, particularly television personality Ryan Seacrest.

Lazarus acknowledged that some of the criticism "is in fact fair and we are listening." But he did not think the complainers represented the wider NBC's Olympic audience.

"We listen. We read. We understand there's people that don't like what we are doing, but we think that is a very loud minority and the silent majority has been with us for the first six days," Lazarus said.

He added, "The overwhelming majority of the people are voting with their clickers, mouses and their fingertips on every device and saying we are with you."

The London Games represent the first time that every Olympic event is being streamed online. And according to Wurtzel, the research chief, NBC is seeing a record number of people streaming live events, including 1.5 million viewers on July 31 who watched the women's gymnastics team final. Based on the data, live streaming appears does not appear to be cannibalizing the television audience.

NBC said the company had anticipated hiccups in its streaming technology--which critics have amply noted--and that most of the issues have been fixed.

In terms of its business model, NBC is mulling new ways of offering coverage for future Olympics, including an online-only streaming package available to non-cable subscribers. For the London games, viewers need to have an existing cable subscription to watch events live on the Internet.

When asked about an online package for non-pay TV subscribers, Lazarus said it is something NBC could discuss with its cable partners and look at once the games end and it has time to properly analyze the viewing data.

"I don't rule anything out. We've got the Olympics games through 2020 and the one thing we know for sure is that the media landscape is going to change," he said.

Another option executives said they would consider was airing events live on TV as they happen and then rerunning them again in prime-time.

With regards to the uproar over delaying the airing of the Olympic opening ceremony this year, he said the opening ceremony for the next summer games in Rio in 2016 is likely to be live because of the small time difference between Brazil and the United States.

The network is unsure the opening ceremony in Sochi, Russia will be live for the Winter Olympics because the organizers have not set a time yet.

"Our preference is to do things live in prime time where we can," he said.

(Editing by Peter Lauria and Leslie Gevirtz)

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