Olympics Online a Modest Hit for NBC

By Josh Catone
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The initial numbers suggest that online viewing numbers for their Olympics coverage in the US have been pretty good, though not as big as the hype. Over the first three days an average of 4.7 million users watched and average of just 3.6 million video streams on NBC’s site, according to ZDNet. The good news for NBC is that the total number of online viewers went up slightly each day, even as the number of television views dropped. And that’s also 4-times more than watched the Italian Winter games online in 2006, and about on par with the 4.7 million unique viewers who watched NCAA basketball in the US last March online.

The bad news, though, as ZDNet’s Tom Steinert-Threlkeld points out, is that NBC is streaming only about 2% of the number of videos that Google’s YouTube streams each day (and remember that YouTube also has some Olympics coverage outside the US). So even though NBC’s numbers have been good, they haven’t been close to a perfect 10.

The Olympic video is also not proving very sticky. Average time spent on the NBCOlympics.com site is just 15 minutes (on the high end). That’s actually more than the 2.7 minute average for web video reported in July. But given that so many Olympic events — especially team sports like football (soccer), volleyball, basketball, and water polo — take place over much more than 15 minutes, that’s not a great sign for the success of NBC’s online coverage.

So why were NBC’s numbers only good and not great? The short online attention span is almost definitely a contributing factor. In a world where online viewers are generally used to watching videos under 3 minutes, long-form sports coverage just may not be attractive to many people. (Then again, Hulu has done very well, and it houses a large library of full-length television shows and feature films.)

Another reason could be the way that NBC schedules its television coverage. By doing things like tape delaying events to keep them in prime time, and putting US-centric events — such as female gymnastics and Michael Phelps’ swimming — on its flagship television channel after 8PM, it is diminishing the attractiveness of their online coverage to casual American fans.

And of course, it could just be that the online coverage is not very good, suffering from poor navigation, so-so quality, and a complete lack of commentary. (Others disagree with that assessment.)

The ZDNet article also mentions that most people watch online Olympics clips together, with an average of 1.5 people watching each clip — which would lower the number of total streams, but actually increase the number of total users. However, it’s unclear how they are able to measure that.

NBC could see a bump in its daytime usage as the work week starts as people try to sneak Olympic-sized breaks at the office.

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  • jess

    I tried to watch some streams yesterday, but the site navigation was confusing to try to pull up live feeds. I left and just flipped on the TV.

  • wwb_99

    For me it is user experience. I can watch the televised olympics on a 46″ flat panel in glorious high definition with booming surround sound. Or I can watch a tiny blurry postage stamp on a big monitor with scratchy sound. You make the call.

  • EastCoast

    They’d have probably had better viewing figures if they’d not used silverlight to show the live video. With silverlight still having a low installation percentage, and a reasonably large download to install to view, their bounce rate is probably pretty high. It’s a bit of an odd decision to foist this additional hurdle upon olympic viewers, when there are no technical advantages to implementing the user experience with this technology compared with doing the same in flash that already has a very high uptake.

  • Marc

    I think the idea of the “long-form” coverage is great, but the execution is sorely lacking– two-hour long bocks of undigested video are not really all that watchable. They need to come up with at least a rudimentary menu system, and the commentary generally could be greatly improved. And the menus are amazingly uninformative– I just checked out “Women’s Group B (RUS v SWE)”. Without actually selecting it, how would I have known that this was group handball?

    All told, a reasonable start: maybe next time they’ll actually get there.

  • I’d also be cautious of jumping to technical and consumer explanations; I get the impression that interest in the Olympics generally is far short of the hype. And I think the reason is that it’s in China, being hosted by a dictatorship.

  • Dougist.com

    The Olympics are wildly popular, politics or not…

    The issue almost raised, but not quite hit, is the missing full screen view. If you can see your desk top you will wander off. If there was a full screen option the stickiness would increase dramatically.

  • stefan24

    I for one am not watching on-line or off-line also trying to stay away from printed media about the Olympic. For an event of this nature which is about bring together different countries, races, religions I can’t see how China’s human rights policies and treatment of its people can be used as an example of these aspirations.

    I’m in the UK and I believe that is being handled by Adobe Flash, so I was wondering is Microsoft’s silverlight being used and what is the technology is like?

  • I saw that they were using SilverLight and there was no way I was going to install that on my MAC or PC. :-P

  • Anonymous

    The BBC coverage of the Olympics is pretty amazing, though typically quite UK oriented. Online streaming is comprehensive and as live as what you can see on digital TV, though I wish the quality matched what you could see on standard-def Tv.