Going for Gold: The Changing Broadcast Standards of Olympic Coverage

Going for Gold: The Changing Broadcast Standards of Olympic Coverage


By Jacqueline Clary, Minority Media and Telecommunications Council

By a show of hands, how many of you knew the results of a 2012 Olympic event before it was broadcast?

I thought so.  Thanks to a news alert, I knew well in advance that Gabby Douglas became the first African American to win the gold medal in gymnastics’ most prestigious event, the all-around competition, and that Michael Phelps swam his way into Olympic history with his 19th career medal.

Between emailed news alerts from major publications, NBC’s own digital coverage, and Twitter, instantaneous results are the new norm.  Thus explains the social media outcry against delayed event broadcasts.

With this increased desire for instant coverage, the 2012 Olympics is a study in media evolution.  As the broadcast industry converges with the digital revolution, we will likely see a period of experimentation where the industry tests various models to see which are likely to attract the most loyal viewers.

Delaying Olympic coverage until primetime appears to be a very successful programming and business model for NBCUniversal.  NBC paid $4.4 billion to obtain the rights to distribute Olympic coverage in the U.S. through the 2020 Games.  After winning the right to cover the Olympics, there are also extensive production costs – including travel and employment – that go into the final product.  However, despite these costs and an initial loss estimate of $200 million, NBC now expects to break even on the 2012 Games.

However, the debate persists.  Responding to criticism, NBC removed the subscription TV requirement that acted as a barrier to accessing live online Olympic coverage to allow anyone with a basic cable subscription to watch anticipated matches online in real time.

But what good will this real time, online coverage do for the millions of homes that don’t have broadband service?  NBCUniversal’s parent company, Comcast, is well aware of the broadband adoption gap.  Comcast is helping low-income families to bridge the digital divide through its Internet Essentials program, which offers service and computer discounts as well as free digital literacy training.

Regardless of the criticism, which NBC acknowledges, the fact remains that NBC has hit ratings gold.  Surpassing the 1996 Games, NBC’s 2012 coverage has averaged 35 million viewers to date, a total of 75 million video streams, and more than 6 million NBC Olympic app downloads.

NBC is also increasing its amount of hours covered – up more than 60 percent from the Beijing Games in both broadcast and online streaming.

Further, experimentation has carried the broadcasts across traditional lines to provide multilingual and 3D options.  The Olympic Games are now broadcast across 10 platforms, including Telemundo, NBCOlympics.com, and NBCOlympics.com/Telemundo, the first ever 3D Olympic channel – averaging 291 hours per day for broadcast and more than 3,500 hours of live online streaming.  NBC also created free Olympics and Olympics “Live Extra” apps for smartphone and tablet consumers.  For cable customers, all medal events are available on demand.

Does NBC’s coverage of the Olympics leave room for improvement?


As with any type of trial and error experiment, adjustments will need to be made.

But was the experiment successful?


In light of innovation, a surge in viewing options, and the ratings response to primetime viewing, the experiment has been highly successful.  More importantly, the experiment is necessary.

In a changing industry, broadcasters all over the nation are reevaluating their business models to integrate a digital platform.  While we will see many successes and failures in the years to come, this evolution of media is crucial to the continued presence of the broadcast industry.

The 2012 Olympic coverage has prompted a debate about which programming models best reach viewers.  However, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: by giving consumers multiple platforms from which to choose their viewing preferences and voice their opinions, the audience is in control.

Jacqueline Clary is the John W. Jones Fellow at the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council. In this position, she focuses on a variety of policy issues to advance minority participation in the media and telecommunications industries. Ms. Clary earned her B.A. from John Carroll University, her J.D. from Syracuse University College of Law, and is a member of the New York State Bar.