NBC News has called its Olympic coverage "the most ambitious single media project in history." But the real ambition is in how NBC plans to experiment with Olympics ratings in the hopes of changing the advertising business model on network TV. Grant Robertson of Toronto’s Globe and Mailexplains.
BOB GARFIELD: What the Olympics will do for China’s place in the world is one question. Another is, what will it do for TV networks’ place in the world? NBC is touting its coverage as, quote, “the most ambitious single media project in history,” involving nearly 3,600 hundred hours of coverage across seven NBC-affiliated networks and on the Web.
But the most ambitious aspect of NBC’s Olympic plan might be its push to change the way advertisers pay TV networks for ads. NBC will use the Olympics to attempt to show the world that, despite gloomy reports for the future of the networks, their audience hasn't abandoned them at all. They've just migrated to other platforms.
So, says, Grant Robertson, media reporter for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, NBC will be keeping meticulous track of the numbers of people watching the Olympics across all platforms, online, DVR, cell phones – and both people who still sit in front of the TV. And they'll combine those numbers in a brand new way. GRANT ROBERTSON: They'll take all of those numbers, try to crunch them into one single number that they can say, here’s how many million people are watching the Olympics as opposed to hiving it off into the smaller groups as it is now. And then they'll try to drill down and say to advertisers, here’s how you can reach, you know, your 25-year-old male. He’s over here watching on the Internet. That’s the information advertisers may warm to. BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about using the Olympics as the programming choice for doing all of this extensive measurement. Live sporting events, by their very nature, draw a larger audience that is watching in real time. The Super Bowl gets 100 million U.S. viewers every single year while the ratings for sit-coms and dramas continue to plummet.
Are the data that NBC will harvest here, are they useful for other kinds of programming? And, if not, how does NBC intend to translate the results of this experiment against their ordinary schedule of programming? GRANT ROBERTSON: That remains to be seen how useful it can be and whether it will transfer, but that’s NBC’s goal heading in. They're using the Olympics, because they own the rights to it, as this 17-day experiment where they can track all of these numbers and compile them.
And they do expect glitches. They're kind of making this up as they go. But if it works, and if they can get good data from the Olympics, then you'll probably see them attempt to do these same kind of ratings throughout the week next season, perhaps, during the prime time schedule. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so let's just say with these refined audience measurements they find out that, yes, indeed, fewer people are watching live on television, many are watching on DVRs, many are watching highlights on mobile or watching online.
But they also discover that, lo and behold, the people with the DVRs are fast forwarding through the commercials and the people online are certainly not watching any ads that sponsors have paid for. Doesn't this just give them the information that they had already intuited? Does it help them get money from advertisers to know what we have long since assumed? GRANT ROBERTSON: It very well could, because the DVR problem is one that they haven't really figured out how to deal with yet. What they may attempt to show, at least, is that the impact of DVRs is not as big as everybody believes, because when people see the ratings on network TV dropping, immediately they default to, well, those are people that are recording it, watching it a week later and may or may not be watching commercials.
What they're trying to pull out is data that may show younger viewers are watching on cell phones or certain viewers are calling up cable video-on-demand services, which can have advertising in them, and show that, okay, those are drawing audiences, so, advertisers, we still have value for you. BOB GARFIELD: I guess what I'm wondering here, Grant, is whether NBC, in coming up with very granular data about people’s viewing habits on these other platforms, is only going to convince people further that it’s going to be hard to get their ads in front of consumers.
People on the Internet, for example, have shown extraordinary resistance to watching video ads and the people with DVRs, as we've just discussed, overwhelmingly skip past them. Couldn't all this data that they're coming up with end up just accelerating the doom and gloom? GRANT ROBERTSON: Absolutely, and you've got to think that if it does, the biggest media project of all time, or whatever [LAUGHS] they called it, you know, would have really backfired on them. That is a risk. They don't know what kind of numbers are going to come out of this.
And the thing that keeps them awake at night is how can we still show our advertisers that we are the biggest game in town, that we are relevant, that we can reach the biggest audiences? And if that data comes back and shows that the erosion is real and that viewers have, in fact, left television, not just migrated to consume it in different ways, then that would be a big problem for the network. BOB GARFIELD: Well, Grant, thank you very much. GRANT ROBERTSON: Thanks for having me. BOB GARFIELD: Grant Robertson is a media reporter for the Toronto Globe and Mail. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Anyone who is anyone was at journalism’s Unity '08 Convention, and that includes the CIA. The CIA? This is On the Media from NPR. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]