London Olympics might make money after all, NBC Sports chief says

Maybe the best way to cut through all the spin and counterspin on the Olympics is this:

Last week, NBC was saying it would lose money on the Olympics.

Yesterday, it said it might break even.

Today, the network is saying it could turn a profit on the $1.18 billion investment.

"Yeah, we think there's a small chance, a chance we could make a little bit of money over the next couple of weeks," Mark Lazarus, chairman of the NBC Sports Group, said in a conference call from London Thursday when asked if the network might turn a profit on the games.

Lazarus attributed the change to the big ratings for the first nights of competition starting Saturday, Sunday and Monday. He said NBC expected big ratings for the opening ceremonies, but that the first few nights of ratings for competition convinced NBC there was a new market of advertisers who didn't buy in advance but would like to buy now.

And while he didn't address it in the conference call, advertisers who buy after it's no longer a gamble pay higher rates.

And that is the name of the biggest game in all media these days: Finding a way to monetize -- maximum monetize -- the content you own. That's what the queue of new Olympics buyers shows: NBC has found a way in using social and online media to drive viewers to prime time to make money on old-media TV where it can charge the highest rates. It's as if newspapers found a way to use their online and social media platforms to drive that audience back to print subscriptions or box sales.

Lazarus addressed surprisingly polite questions about the ire sounded in social media over the weekend and earlier in the week, by sounding the same theme other NBC executives have said in telephone interviews with me: The majority of American viewers and media consumers seem to like what NBC is doing. It's a "loud minority" complaining.

"The overwhelming majority of people are voting with their clicker and their mouses and their fingertips on every device, saying, 'We're with you, we're enjoying what you're doing, thank you, please continue,'" he said.

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

Alan Wurtzel, head of research for NBC, said the network's digital results "parallel television" in terms of success.

He said, so far, 28 million have visited, while 4.6 million have been to the network's mobile sites. The latter is double Beijing.

Furthermore, digital and social media are driving younger viewers to prime-time TV, according to Nielsen research that he cited.

"We always said this will be the first truly social media Olympics, and that's exactly how it's turning out."

Wurtzel said 82 percent of viewers surveyed by NBC have said, "with all the buzz, I have become more interested in watching the Olympics."

He said "two-thirds" of viewers surveyed told interviewers, "I've gotten in these Olympics because friends and family members are actively engaged in posting and tweeting about the games."

"Our total teen audience is up 28 percent compared to Beijing," Wurtzel said. "Viewing by teen girls is up 62 percent, teenage boys up 7 percent. Viewing by kids 2 to 11 is up 33 percent."

Indicative of how good NBC is feeling about things, Wurtzel, a self-described "research geek," felt confident enough on the phone yesterday to offer reporters his favorite "fun factoid."

"Archery is the new curling," he said. "It's delivered an average of 1.5 million viewers making it the highest-rated cable sports, beating out basketball."

He later explained that's the average for basketball -- not for basketball when the men's Olympic team is playing.

Still, there's nothing like the thought of making money instead of losing it to bring out a network executive's sense of humor -- weird as the sense might be.

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