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A Year Out From Sochi, NBCU Gears Up

NEW YORK — With the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, now just under a year away, much has changed since the Winter Games were held in Vancouver in 2010.

Three years ago, digital and social media were not nearly the forces they are today in terms of shaping cultural behavior and TV viewing.

U.S. media rights-holder NBCUniversal was controlled by General Electric, not Comcast.

Then, NBCU sustained a $223 million loss in Vancouver, amidst a shaky economy. Now, it appears poised to turn a profit on the quadrennial.

Mark Lazarus, who has succeeded Dick Ebersol as the chairman of NBC Sports Group and leads the programmer’s Olympics effort, is predicting profitability with the Sochi Games.


The most immediate change will occur with the schedule, as NBC will begin its coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in primetime the day before the Opening Ceremony.

With the International Olympic Committee adding 12 events to the Sochi slate, NBC on Feb. 6, 2014, will become the first U.S. media company to present primetime Games coverage before the flame is officially ignited the following day.

New Olympic events, such as team figure skating and men’s and women’s slopestyle snowboarding, along with women’s freestyle moguls, will begin the day before the Opening Ceremony and be showcased during NBC’s primetime coverage that night.

NBCU officials, who gathered at a Feb. 5 press event at New York’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza — the day gold-medal skier Lindsey Vonn suffered a trio of injuries from which she will have to recover in order to compete in the 2014 Olympics — said the events will serve as a strong lead-in for the festivities the following night.

“Thursday is a big night for television,” NBCU Olympics executive producer Jim Bell said. “[This] will give us a unique opportunity to kick things off and set up the Opening Ceremony the following night in a big way.”

NBC’s primetime coverage of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics averaged 24.4 million viewers on NBC, up 21% from the 20.2 million the broadcaster averaged during the Torino Games. All told, Vancouver attracted 190 million to NBCU’s varied channels, making it the second most-watched Winter Olympics in history, behind the 204 million on CBS for Lillehammer in 1994, which was fueled by Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan contretemps.

“Ad sales are pacing extremely well,” Lazarus added. “This will be a very good moment for the company,” he said of the first Olympics for which NBCU purchased the rights after it was acquired by Comcast.

NBCU spent $775 million for the Sochi rights as part of $4.38 billion outlay for four Games through 2020. On GE’s watch, NBCU paid $820 million in rights to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

A stronger ad market enabled NBCU to break even on the London Olympics last summer.

Sochi, a Black Sea resort favored by summering Muscovites, will be either eight or nine hours ahead of the U.S. East Coast, depending on Russia’s decision whether to use daylight-savings time.

Although plans were not specified, NBC will deploy a similar strategy from London, meaning, in a first for a Winter Games, every event from Sochi will be carried live on some platform, mostly via live streaming.

Lazarus said national cable service NBC Sports Network will continue its role as the home to U.S. team sports. But because there are fewer Winter Games events, that role will be modified to some extent.

Curling again will receive plenty of coverage. Nearly all the hockey — including U.S. men’s and women’s games and the medal rounds — will be televised live.


Lazarus expressed optimism that the National Hockey League and its union will decide to allow the world’s best players to compete in Sochi. The 2010 gold medal final, in which Canada topped the U.S. 3-2 on Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal, drew 27.6 million viewers, making it the most-watched hockey telecast in the States since 32.8 million saw the Americans top Finland for gold at the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.

The league, coming off its lockout, has yet to schedule key meetings with the IOC and the International Ice Hockey Federation.

NBC drew criticism last summer for not airing more high-profile sports live on TV during the day, especially on weekends, instead holding them for tape-delayed broadcasts in primetime. For Sochi, NBC executives are considering whether to televise more marquee competitions live and then encore them at night.

Lazarus defended the Vancouver decision and the business model, stating that presenting events earlier on digital platforms boosted viewership. “Thirty million people a night voted to watch us when they already knew what was going on. I think that [live-streaming events] satisfied a lot of the immediacy needs.”

Subscriber authentication will once again be at the center of NBCU’s digital game plan.

Calling authentication “an evolving consumer behavior,” Gary Zenkel, president, NBC Olympics, and operations, said NBCU and “I think the industry were quite happy with the results from London.”

He said distributors had systems and marketing in place that enabled consumers to navigate the content from London, pointing out that Comcast and Cablevision Systems have Internet-protocol-detection systems through which subscribers logged on via Wi-Fi are immediately identified as customers and not required to authenticate. “We’re hoping this will be adapted by other distributors, which will greatly expand the success rate,” Zenkel said.

Promotion for the Sochi Olympics kicked off on Feb. 6, with the programmer setting up a roadblock in the 8 p.m. hour, when it disseminated a 60-second promotional message across its array of assets. Moreover, myriad NBCU programs across television, radio and the Web previewed the Sochi Olympics with editorial content.

John Miller, chief marketing officer of NBC Sports Group, said that the promo schedule will largely manifest over the next six months on NBC Sports Group properties, before NBC primetime fully enters the mix with the premiere of the 2013-14 TV season next fall. Come Thanksgiving, Miller said, “carpet bombing” will commence, with promos rolling to all of the NBCU channels that will be carrying the games.

Four weeks out NBCU’s “symphony” efforts for Sochi will engage the entire company. Miller said paid media behind the Olympics will be employed about two weeks out.


Miller said the intent to view among a survey group is at 76%, a ratio that is vastly higher than any other NBC show, including top-rated Sunday Night Football. He attributed that level to satisfaction to respondents’ recent Olympic experiences, and the 12-to-34 set having access to content on “the devices they use. They like the experience of sharing with friends. The higher level, I believe, is linked to these activities.”

There figures to be much more of that from Russia. Zenkel pointed out that in 2010, Twitter had not fully arrived and that tablets were in their infancy with only 4% of homes owning the devices, compared with 40% today. Similarly, only 20% of the population owned smartphones then, versus projected penetration levels in the 50% to 60% range.

Overall, Lazarus is quite bullish about Sochi. “We believe momentum of Olympics will continue. Big events continue to perform well, whether the Super Bowl, the Grammys, the Golden Globes, Sunday Night Football. Viewers have a big appetite for programming that is treated and made into big events. The Olympics is the poster child for that.”


Digital and social media are expected to play a big role in how viewers watch NBC Sports Group’s 2014 Winter Olympics coverage from Sochi, Russia.