Nbc's Olympics: The Millions Who Watched, And Why

Megan Rapinoe, right, celebrates with teammate Alex Morgan after scoring against Canada during their semIfinal women's soccer match at Old Trafford Stadium in Manchester, England.
Megan Rapinoe, right, celebrates with teammate Alex Morgan after scoring against Canada during their semIfinal women's soccer match at Old Trafford Stadium in Manchester, England. (JON SUPER / Associated Press)
Posted: August 17, 2012

Now we know that, despite the groans (justified) over tape delays, prime-time packaging, and confusing schedules, people watched NBC's Olympic coverage on broadcast TV anyway. A lot of people. An average of 31.1 million each Olympic night, and a Nielsen total of 219.4 million individuals who watched at least six minutes of coverage (the Nielsen quantum).

It's worth asking why they watched. And the answers tell us a great deal about TV watchers, what remains the same, and what has changed. Quite a lot, in both cases.

"The fact is that people wanted to gather round with their families and watch the broadcasts we had in prime time," says Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports Group. "They wanted to see great sports, great sportsmanship, and the stories we were telling."

It might sound like boilerplate except that Lazarus lays out in two important points why broadcast viewing, though smaller than it used to be (because of all the other competing ways you can spend an evening these days), is still pretty strong, and pretty lucrative.

People wanted to gather round with their families and watch: As it has been for the 62 years or so of its public existence (if you start the clock at 1950), TV watching is still primarily a social event. Yes, it's something millions do alone. But it's also something millions do in groups, of friends and family. The social aspect amplifies when we're watching something big, historic, or otherwise important to us. On July 21, 1969, I, then 16, entered the living room, and my eight brothers and sisters and Mom were all sprawled around the floor, watching the first human step on the Moon. We wanted to see that moment, and we wanted to see it together.

That holds true for anything from a moonwalk to the Olympics to the last episode of a beloved show, such as, say, The Closer, which drew a cool 9.1 million viewers for its TNT finale. (And 7.8 million stayed on their couches to watch Major Crimes, the spinoff debut that followed.)

They wanted to see great sports, great sportsmanship, and the stories we were telling: As Lazarus hopes and knows, if you have good stuff, people will watch. And the Olympics is good stuff. True, it's a logistical behemoth, especially as of 2012, when you can throw at people a national network, eight cable channels, two mobile phone apps, a vast website, and more than 5,500 hours of coverage. That very size and complexity was involved in the complaints about NBC's offerings: People didn't know where stuff literally was, and many didn't know that everything was live online. But if you can pull it off, the Olympics is great, and people will watch.

(In this regard, as an aside, I thought longtime BBC soccer announcer Arlo White was one of the very best things in the whole show. U.S. soccer announcers can't touch him. His call of the Canada-United States semifinal, in its entirety, was one of the best calls of any sports event I ever saw. People are praising his call of the last-moment winning goal: "Ohhh! It's in! Alex Morgan has done it!" But throughout, he caught the flow, the moments of skill, the bravery, and what was at stake, with enthusiasm and knowing steadiness. When you have events, and announcing, of such caliber, people will watch.

TV viewers are also doing something recently established, something different from what they did for the first 50 years of TV: They are watching on multiple screens. Nielsen figures show that watching on multiple screens or platforms - TV/laptop/mobile - is a regular experience for up to 59 percent of adults. People see something on TV and check it on Wikipedia, let's say. Or they see an actor and look up his name on IMDB. Or they're watching a movie, like/hate it, and look it up to learn more.

When commercials attack, they text/tweet people.

Even more fascinating, they tweet/text while watching, maintain running conversations with friends in other rooms watching other multiple screens.

A recent Pew poll found that in the last 30 days, 38 percent of respondents had used a cell phone to keep occupied during commercials; 23 percent to exchange texts with someone while watching the same program. Twenty-two percent used a phone or computer to check statements on TV.

I've done all this myself in the last 30 days. No one taught me how. I sort of just drifted into these behaviors. Because, slowly, I realized I could. Now I do a lot.

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, sees it as an extension of traditional media behaviors:

"Think about the newspaper days of yore," he says. "People would go to the ballgame and still want to read about coverage next morning. There's often been this multiplatform experience of news events. In real time, people listened to radio and watch TV, and later they were eager to see what the more deliberative coverage of newspaper writers would say. Still are. That has been the norm for a long time. The difference today is that there are a lot more platforms to choose from. And it has exploded. It now extends to everybody who's got a Facebook account or Twitter feed. The scale of the conversation is vastly expanded."

True, that. The family, the circle, is potentially worldwide. Rainie is sure that "the social-media side of watching the Olympics kept the numbers up. People multiscreening, that added value to the watching experience in prime time. They could watch and also ask somebody else, 'Did you see that? What did you think?"

(At the Games themselves, spectators at the bicycle road races were tweeting so furiously that it disrupted BBC coverage. They didn't just want to be there and see Olympic sport. They wanted to share the experience and comment on it.)

So that was another reason to sit down and watch stuff when you already knew how it turned out: You wanted to share and converse and compare notes.

All of which had to help NBC, which was trying to anticipate and cater to that sharing/questing/value-adding energy with its online offerings, apps, video streaming, and activities such as individual pages for athletes. Gymnastic gold medalist Gabby Douglas attracted 23.4 million hits on her page, swimmer Michael Phelps nearly 8 million. People are into this stuff and will do it if it's offered. That expands the very definition of "watching." NBC and other broadcasters, if they're smart, will get even better and smarter at this as we go.

"TV watching is no longer just spectation," Rainie says. "It's a participant sport; it's active. You see, you analyze, you critique, you ask questions, and you share all that activity with others, who answer back, add their own ideas, add value, create an intellectual product that keeps alive and keeps changing. It extends the conversation way beyond the critics and the elite experts."

Oh, brave new TV.

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter, @jtimpane.

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