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Winter Olympics: NBCSN Looks to Maintain Ratings Momentum after Sochi

As the Sochi Games wind down, there are plenty of medals yet to be awarded and linear and digital audiences to parse. But there has been one constant that has emerged from the Winter Olympics by the Black Sea: NBCSN has been on a record ratings run. And the service will look to build on its Nielsen momentum post-Games.

In its first-ever Winter Olympics, NBCSN through 11 days has averaged 1.72 million viewers with its live coverage from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. (ET), according to Nielsen live + same-day data. That marks a 135% jump from the 732,000 viewers for the comparable period with its inaugural Games coverage from London in 2012.

Moreover, the Sochi fare has resulted in the seven-most-watched weekday daytime periods (five the first week, and on Feb. 17-18) in NBCSN history and its four-most-viewed weekend days (Feb. 8-9, and Feb. 15-16).

“We’re very happy,” said Jon Miller, president of programming, NBC Sports, who had just returned from Russia, in an interview. “We had very aggressive expectations internally and we’ve exceeded all of them.”

Miller said that NBCSN’s ratings have been bolstered by its coverage of hockey, topped by Team USA’s exciting, eight-round shoot-out win over Russia on Feb. 15, which drew the service’s all-time hockey audience of 4.1 million, despite facing off at 7:30 a.m. (ET) 4:30 a.m. (PT).  He said the game, keyed by T.J Oshie heroics, was one of the most exciting events he’s ever seen in person, ranking alongside Super Bowl-winning performance by the New York Giants, a couple of Ryder Cups, and the U.S.-Canada gold-medal hockey final from Vancouver. “That might not have been the finish a fan of Team USA wanted, but it was amazing,” he said.

Pucks aside, Miller said NBCSN has benefited from its complete figure skating coverage from the Iceberg. “All of the skating competitions have been live on NBCSN for those fans who truly enjoy it, and then they still like to come to the high-end competition and the packaged profiles on NBC in primetime,” he noted. 

Miller also reported strong viewing for speed skating and snowboard cross on the national cable sports network.

NBCSN certainly wants to build on the audience momentum going forward. And unlike when it came out of its initial Olympic turn in August 2012, the network is better-positioned to capitalize and keep viewers who may have sampled it for the first time during its coverage from Sochi.

“It’s incumbent on us to build on all of the momentum from the Olympics. We have different properties and have ancillary shows around them,” said Miller, referring to the Barclays Premier League, the National Hockey League, which was on a lockout hiatus in the fall of 2012, and the 2015 addition of NASCAR, which will be supported by the premiere of NASCAR America.

The 5 p.m. weekday show joins NBCSN’s lineup on Feb. 24, the day after the conclusion of the Sochi Games and Daytona 500 crowns a new champion.  The half-hour show focusing on stock car sport will also include coverage of Formula 1 and Indy Car, both of which will drop the race flags on their NBC Sports Group schedules in March. 

With the playoff race about to be rejoined following the Olympic break, the NHL returns to NBCSN on Wednesday, Feb. 26 with a Rivalry Night doubleheader matching Buffalo and Boston and Los Angeles and Colorado.

The following weekend two outdoor games are on tap, with the Stadium Series making its concluding stop at Soldier Field with Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins on March 1 in primetime on NBC and the Tim Horton’s Heritage Classic from Vancouver, B.C., the following day between Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators on NBCSN. New episodes of NHL Revealed, the docuseries chronicling the outdoor games and the players' Olympic experiences, are also on the cable network’s lineup.

The Games are also leading into Premier League coverage this weekend. “There really is an appetite for the best in soccer. The Premier League has created a new daypart,” said Miller, referring to England’s top soccer circuit playing to large American audience on weekend mornings.

As for the links sport, Golf Channel wastes no time looking ahead to the game’s return to the Olympics for the first time in 112 years in Rio de Janiero in 2016. The second season of In Play with Jimmy Roberts, premiering on Feb. 24 at 10 p.m., will look at the course design in Brazil. Golf and NBC are also gearing up for the Honda Classic PGA Tour stop from Feb. 27 through March 2, as part of the Peacock’s coverage of the tour's Florida swing.

Miller said just as Sochi has served a large promotional platform for NBC Sports Group’s various plays, the trumpet also has sounded for other NBCUniversal initiatives like Jimmy Fallon’s move to The Tonight Show, and Seth Myers to Late Night, the return of TV’s top new series, The Blacklist to NBC’s schedule, as well as the upcoming bows of new shows About a Boy and Crisis.

That being said, there is still plenty of action and drama to unfold from Sochi.

“There are [four] days to go, so we still have a lot of work to do,” said Miller, pointing toward top-level events, including American figure skating hopeful Gracie Gold, Ted Lighety and Mikaela Shiffrin in alpine skiing, the four-man bobsled competition and the culmination of the hockey tournaments, highlighted by the women’s gold-medal match between the U.S. and Canada and the men from those nations squaring off in the semifinals.  

“It’s a credit to the U.S. Olympic Committee and the athletes, our production team and the vision of [NBC Olympics president] Gary Zenkel, [NBC Sports Group chairman] Mark Lazarus, and [NBC Olympics executive producer] Jim Bell to make the Games available on all platforms, TV, desktops, tablets and phones,” said Miller. “Once you start watching the Olympics, you want to consume more.”