Since the first telecast in 1960, the Olympics have been one of television's biggest productions, attracting tens of millions of viewers and making huge profits for the network that owned broadcast rights.
But with audiences hopelessly fragmented, analysts are wondering whether there are any events large enough to rally viewers of all ages to watch a contest on TV in real time as the nation once did when the U.S. hockey team beat the Russians. NBC faces a host of major challenges as it prepares to offer a record 3,600 hours of coverage of the Beijing Olympics starting Friday.
One of the media giant's biggest concerns in its attempt to turn a profit on more than $1 billion spent in rights fees and production costs is how to make sure the increasing number of Americans who are streaming video online, receiving downloads on their cell phones or watching one of the network's several cable channels are counted.
This summer, unlike the winter contests in 2006 when headlines proclaimed the Olympics a flop after series such as American Idol and Grey's Anatomy beat the games in the ratings, NBC has a new strategy for achieving that all-inclusive goal. It's a revolutionary audience measurement plan that could change the business model that has driven prime-time TV for almost six decades - and help newspapers, magazines and other forms of legacy media substantially boost advertising earnings from their new online and mobile operations.
"The Olympics itself is going to be the largest television event in the history of the medium - in terms of what it is we're going to be producing," says Alan Wurtzel, president of research for NBC Universal, referring to 17 days of around-the-clock TV coverage, as well as a record 2,200 hours of streamed online video. "And this is the largest research initiative that I know of in media history - it has to be in order to match the scale of the Olympics. For us, the Summer Olympics are a billion-dollar research lab."
"It's historic, no doubt about it," says Douglas Gomery, media economist and historian at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Think about it: For more than 50 years, one model of audience measurement has essentially determined what Americans will or won't get to see on TV. And this looks to be the moment where that is about to change, and it's all being played on the big-big stage of the Olympics with an audience measured in the tens of millions."
NBC's primary goal is to show advertisers who are paying as much as $750,000 for a 30-second advertising spot that their "money is well-spent," according to Wurtzel.
But in attempting to do so, NBC will also be trying to provide the first hard evidence for what many consumers already know to be true from their own lives: TV is no longer the only screen through which they experience the world. More and more of their news and entertainment time is being spent on a computer or using such mobile devices as iPhones and BlackBerrys.
If and when such evidence is gathered and accepted by Madison Avenue, all the companies that are frantically shifting resources from their traditional outlets to new ones in the face of audience erosion can start cashing in on their new media futures.
NBC will continue to use Nielsen media research, the industry standard since the 1950s, to count TV viewers for the Olympics on NBC and such sister cable channels as MSNBC, CNBC and Oxygen. The network will release those figures each day during the games.
But, for the first time, the network will also issue a daily figure called TAMI (total audience measurement index). In addition to the aggregated Nielsen TV audiences, it will include all those who have accessed NBC's Web sites, mobile programming and video-on-demand providers.
While the pioneering research firm has recently launched new services to measure mobile use and online viewing, NBC is going elsewhere for the bulk of its digital data. The less widely known companies Omniture, Rentrak Corp. and Quantcast Inc. will be doing the online, video-on-demand and mobile measuring and analytics.
Nielsen says it still considers itself a partner in NBC's landmark Olympics effort despite the new competition.
"We're a big part of it. We've had a long-standing relationship with NBC since the beginning of television, and we're providing them with our most extensive research for the Beijing Olympics," Nielsen spokeswoman Alana K. Johnson said in an e-mail response.
Beyond all of the counting and measuring by all the different companies, NBC will also be interviewing a mega-focus-group of 500 persons a day in search of insights into how they are using the coverage - what they like, don't like and want to see more of in coming days. Members of smaller focus groups will have iPhones with embedded chips that chart their consumption of Olympics programming as well. NBC will be issuing reports on its polling and focus group interviewing throughout the Olympics.
"This is NBC trying to get with the 21st century and catch up with a sea change in viewers' habits," says Abe Novick, an executive at the Euro RSCG global advertising agency. "It's an attempt to show Olympic advertisers all the eyeballs that are watching the ads for which they paid such a hefty price - to prove to the advertisers they are getting return on investment. And it's a wise choice by NBC to do it such a big way."
The TAMI figures will also provide cover for advertising agency executives who have persuaded clients to buy into the Olympics. No one was more troubled by the many newspaper stories that labeled the 2006 Winter Olympics a loser than the giant corporations that had spent millions of dollars on ads. In the event that any summer entertainment or sports program tops the Olympics this month, the agency executives will be able to soothe their big-ticket clients with an explanation of total viewing audience - and have data to back it up.
That is not to say the Olympics are automatically going to be judged a success for NBC. There is a world of challenges and uncertainties that the network faces in covering the games.
There is, for example, a possibility of the mass audience for prime-time TV coverage's being drained by online and mobile coverage throughout the day even though NBC is planning to severely restrict access and distribution of online video by competitors.
And then, there's China itself: Nothing is guaranteed for a network doing live broadcasts in a country that has so little regard for press freedom that its officials have begun restricting Web access for visiting journalists before the games even start.
Still, NBC's new measurement model holds tremendous promise for all media - especially those that are attracting younger customers online, such as old-line TV networks and newspapers, but having a hard time persuading advertisers to pay a premium for them.
"NBC knows the younger audience in particular will be watching the Olympics online, and so, they have designed a new and better way to try and show that. And if the can do it with the Olympics, why not for the new fall TV season and beyond?" Novick says.
Indeed, NBC will be using its new package of research tools with such series as the serialized drama Heroes, which has a large youth audience online, according to Wurtzel.
"Right after the Olympics, we'll start using it on some fall shows," Wurtzel says. "This is not something we're planning to do, it's happening now. What we're really trying to do is apply these new techniques to capture how people really consume media today in this new world."
Find comprehensive Olympics coverage at baltimoresun.com/olympics