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What Should Olympic Coverage Look Like?

The Games of the 31st Olympiad are in our collective rear-view mirror. The race for the White House is once again the top story on the evening news. The sports media has turned its attention to baseball pennant races and pre-season football games. And millions of pale, bleary-eyed fans have emerged from behind their screens (television and otherwise) and begun the process of adjusting to the reality of a post-Olympics world.


The Olympics are such an all-consuming event that can be difficult to remember exactly what things were like before the torch was first ignited in Rio on August 5th. There are also so many individual events and happenings — 28 sports, more than 17,000 athletes — that taking stock of the event as a whole is a challenge. So let me help:


If you ignore the record medal haul by American athletes, the feel-good story of #TeamRefugee, and the countless world records and other amazing athletic achievements registered over the two weeks of competition in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the consensus among media and Olympics-watchers alike seems to be that the Olympics were an unmitigated failure. That’s right… the very expensive, very glossy effort by NBC to package and deliver the Olympics proved underwhelming — if not downright offensive — to audiences across the United States.


A harsh assessment perhaps, but let’s look at the numbers:


Olympic viewership was down 17 percent on NBC compared to the London games in 2012 and prime-time viewership across all of the networks carrying the games, and its platforms, was down nine percent from 2012. It wasn’t all bad news for the network: NBC told Bloomberg that streaming on its own platforms was up 24 percent compared to the London Olympics (approximately 84 million people tuned into NBC’s Website and the NBC Sports app, with 3 billion total streams).


Why didn’t the Games in Rio attract the same interest and viewership as the competition four years ago in London? The blame is being heaped onto Millennials. Data suggests that during the past few Games, the average age of viewers has increased. The median age of U.S. viewers for the 2008 Beijing Olympics was 47, rising to 48 for the 2012 London Games. The 2014 Winter Games in Sochi attracted an audience whose average age was 55, compared to 48 for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. And this year, the 18-to-34 audience declined by roughly 30 percent for the Olympics in Rio. NOTE: These numbers only include TV viewership, which skews older in general, so they may not tell the whole story. According to NBC, many younger people are still viewing the games on televisionthe network’s prime-time Nielsen ratings among 18–49 years olds, 7.6, is nearly four times larger than that of the other three networks combined.


The problem appears to be bigger than any one event or sports network. As one analyst told Bloomberg “Sports is less ingrained in the younger demographic. It has been replaced by other things like video games and e-sports and Snapchat feeds.” Additionally, Millennials, are said to want to consume TV on their time, not on a prescribed schedule, so attracting them to a set, scheduled primetime broadcast was already going to be a challenge. Younger viewers are also accessing content in more ways, as evidenced by how the Olympics were consumed across channels, so achieving critical mass anywhere may not be possible any longer.


NBC went into the Games with some understanding of the challenge they would face — and responded with a strategy that made the Olympics more accessible, across channels andn platforms, than ever before. NBC offered 6,755 hours of Olympic action distributed across its TV and digital networks — 1,220 more hours than the 2012 Olympics — and formed partnerships with YouTube, Snapchat and other social platforms to expand distribution. According to SocialTimes, the 2016 Summer Olympic Games spurred 1.5 billion interactions from 277 million unique users on Facebook and 916 million interactions from 131 million Instagram users from Aug. 5 through Aug. 21 (and while no direct, comparable data was made available, back in 2012, Facebook announced 116 million posts and comments and 12.2 million likes to athletes’ pages, not on posts. Similarly, from Aug. 3 through Aug. 21, Twitter said more than 187 million tweets were posted about the Games, and those tweets led to 75 billion impressions (on and off Twitter) during that time frame. And, NBCU reported that their partnership with Snapchat yielded 2.2 billion views and 230 million minutes of consumption.


NBC also recruited Ryan Seacrest as host of a late-night show and called attention to Instagram posts in their broadcasts (but did not deploy him to do red carpet-style interviews with athletes before their started their competition, as you might have expected). And when Leslie Jones, a comedian and Saturday Night Live cast member began posting about her excitement around the Olympics competition, NBC quickly brought her down to Rio to give her a front row seat from which to tweet.


No matter how you slice, or spin, the numbers, one thing is clear: Olympics coverage in the future will need to look different to keep up with the continuing evolution of the sports and media experience that fans expect. NBC must do something different in the years aheadif they expect to engage more fans, or attract new young fans at all. The Olympics still hold the record for most-watched global television event of all time — 70 percent of theworld watched at least some portion of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And ninety-eight percent of people watch at least some of the Olympics on TV. But, television ratings are no longer the only or best measure of success — and advertising dollars tend to follow the audience. NBC needs to evolve its strategy to attract interest in the Olympics and drive revenues in new places and new ways.


The key to engaging more fans, young and old, begins with recognizing that the changes have little to do with technology. The platform through which someone might access the coverage of the Games will always evolve. What NBC must figure out is how to improve the produce they offer across those channels.



Before we address some of the specific opportunities to improve coverage, let’s pause to discuss Millennials generally.


There is no shortage of things to discuss when it comes to Millennials. There is a lot of debate about who they are (including what date range even qualifies someone as a Millennial), what they want, how they work, and who they trust. There are people fielding research about whether Millennials participate in organizations, their work habits, their shopping and media consumption, their love of sports, preferences for music and influence on pop culture. Still, no matter the specific focus, its pretty common for Millennials to be talked about as if they are aliens from a faraway planet who have descended upon earth as a form of punishment for Boomers and Gen X-ers. And while that makes for an entertaining theory, it does little to advance our understanding of how to communicate with and engage this sizable and influential group.


One of the things that we don’t talk enough about is how Millennials are the most diverse generation in our history. Forty-three percent of Millennials are non-white and one in five is the child of an immigrant parent. Of course, Millennials are mostly unattached when it comes to organized religion or politics, but they are connected — online and offline (through social media). They are socially liberal as a whole, but there are plenty of young people who are working to advance traditionally conservative political issues and ideology. Millennials are responsible for the creation of extraordinary wealth over the past decade, particularly through tech startups, but also believe the success of a business should be measured in terms of more than just its financial performance (improving society is among the most important things it should seek to achieve). And though the number of Millennials who are growing up in poverty and facing unemployment is continuing to increase, Millennials have remained wildly optimistic in the face of adversity.


Needless to say, all of this is having a real impact on how brands, organizations, and really everyone is looking at this generation.


An Incredible Generation, In Search Of Stability

Too often we place labels on this generation — that they’re entitled, lazy, narcissists who still live with their parents. One thing that can’t be debated about Millennials: this is an incredible generation, growing up at a remarkable time in our history. This generation came of age in a time of incredible change, and are now living in a rapidly, and constantly, changing society. If you look at the first decade of the twenty-first century starting with September 11th in 2001, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in 2005, the historic election of Obama in 2008, two wars, a Great Recession — all of these events were happening in large part during Millennials’ formative years and therefore had an incredible impact on how they think and what they expect. And there is little way to predict what the next two decades will present.


There is certainly a sense of resilience among Millennials. That has seemingly fueled a commitment to become more engaged with serious issues — and in many cases take jobs that pay less but have a social impact. Young people are also staying in school longer, in hopes that they will gain skills or knowledge that can help them better compete in today’s job market, or prepare to chart their own economic path going forward. More than any previous generation, Millennials seem intent on challenging the established views of how society should function and are aggressively looking across sectors and industries to solve the most complex challenges facing our society. Millennials are exploring new ways of living, working, dating, and ensuring that their own needs are being met, including in many cases building entirely new industries to support their way of life.


The issues that Millennials care most are different than past generations — it’s a new world, with new challenges — and their approach to problem solving is also different. The tools they use are different. They are different because the context has changed, and is always changing, and because the tools and technology available encourage a DIY approach to living. To put it another way, this is a generation that is not satisfied with, well, almost anything — and has taken it upon themselves to remake the world in their own view. They are connecting with their peers, friends and colleagues to make change happen very, very quickly. And they are not just attracting the attention of, but also the ire, of those currently in positions of power and influence in the process.


We’re talking about more than 80 million people.

All told, there are roughly 80 million young people classified as Millennials — meaning they fall between the ages of 18 and 33. The extraordinary age range opens up a number of sub-cohorts — with the youngest of Millennials still attending or just barely graduating from college and the oldest of the Millennials are, in many cases, married and starting to have children. To try and lump all 80 million members of this generation together as a single cohort is a big part of the challenge.


Of course, we are much more comfortable defining people in basic terms — and it is much easier to reach and connect with one big group than it is to develop relationships with millions of individuals. But its important to remember that we simply can’t reach everyone with one message, across one channel, at the same time — and motivate them all to take the same actions. That is not a Millennial issue alone, but marketers have become more acutely aware of this problem when trying to reach young people.


When we try to generalize, and make assumptions about what individuals are willing to do because they are all roughly the same age, or carry the same devices, we lose sight of what makes this generation so interesting. People are people — even Millennials, despite what you may have heard. Trying to separate them from the rest of the population, to compare them to other generations, is unfair — and through the lens of marketing and communications, lazy. It makes for a good research study or an easy headline, but it undermines our ability to understand, appreciate, and engage with Millennials as individuals, one-on-one.


There are some trends and patterns to this group, some ways of thinking about young people en mass if needed. Notably, Millennials grew up connected, and today they are hyper-connected, to each other and to everyone else. We are all connected now — and our experiences, are all shaped by those interactions.


Everyone loves to hate Millennials!

Everybody is competing for the same three things when it comes to engaging Millennials: limited time, limited dollars, and limited attention spans. Millennials make you work hard for their limited time — because in an age of hyper-connectivity and high frequency information sharing, time is one of the last remaining things that an individual can control. They make you work hard for their limited dollars — because Millennials, faced with a challenging job market and uncertain economic environment, know better that the first option to buy something isn’t always going to be the best. And Millennials make you work hard for their attention and interest — because they now control their own information flow, they define their own experiences — even more with than past generations, where everything from news to education was highly structured, packaged and delivered with minimal input.


Here’s a little secret — young people know what they are doing and seem to enjoy making organizations and brands work very hard for all three of these things. They also have no intention of giving up that control ever again.


“We can’t get Millennials engaged, and even when we get them to show up — we can’t get them to come back,” is a common complaint you hear in response to a failed effort to engage Millennials. But the fault does not lie with the audience in this case — the fault lies instead with those trying to reach and engage Millennials. Having high standards or a desire to exert some control over their young life is not an unreasonable expectation for anyone, Millennial or otherwise. But as individuals and organizations trying to reach and create connections to this generation, we are too often relying on outdated ways of communicating. We are paying lip service to the idea of involving young people, sharing control or truly welcoming and integrating the input that this audience might provide. Instead of putting in the necessary effort, we are relying on the approaches that we know and have refined over time. And still, we are too often surprised that the established way of doing things is no longer appropriate to meet today’s challenges.


Pragmatic Impulsiveness

This is a generation that is impulsive. They are passionate, ambitious, and willing to take risks if they have a solid foundation from which to launch. You have to figure out the right ways to connect with Millennials in order to get them to act on those impulses. Put aside the idea that the answer rests with a single campaign, a well-crafted tagline, a specific tool or celebrity endorsement. What continues to drive behavior, and influence how Millennials think is the same thing that has driven behavior and influenced individuals for generations: knowledge. The more the audience knows and understands, the more likely they are to engage. The greater the connection they are able to make intellectually with your brand or issue, the more capable they are to process things and make a decision to move forward.


That explains, at least in part, why real, human, offline, face-to-face connections continue to be effective — and increasingly favored — when it comes to engaging Millennials. Technology creates connections. A powerful story can trigger intense emotions. But given the opportunity, young people want to get together and share an experience with others. Millennials are indeed more connected, to devices and to each other, than any other generation to date. They are flooded with more information and their attention and loyalty is sought by more brands and organizations than anyone else. But beyond the devices, and underneath the public persona still lies a young, impressionable, overwhelmed human being. And they don’t know any other way to live. While past generations have struggled to adapt to a hyper-connected life, Millennials entire worldview has been formulated in an age driven by technology. But that doesn’t mean that young people don’t understand the value of discussion or the power of consideration and deliberation.



NBC needs the Olympics to succeed. They have invested billions of dollars to acquire the rights to air the Olympics through 2032. They will spend hundreds of millions of dollars more to produce their coverage in PyeongChang (2018), Tokyo (2020), Beijing (2022) and beyond. They need audiences to consume their coverage and marketers to pay to advertise. To avoid what happened in 2016, a lot will need to change. But what should they do — specifically?


Throughout the Olympics I engaged in conversations with an array of friends, colleagues and people who just had opinions to share on what was happening. As the Games came to a close, I asked these people what they thought could be done to improve the coverage of the Olympics, and in the process help to attract and engage a larger audience in the future. Their suggestions included:


A Channel For Every Sport: Robert Michael Murray, a longtime strategist focused on digital communications, emerging technologies, social media and live-event production in the commercial, nonprofit, media, political and higher education sectors, told me “There’s just so much they could’ve done, but they used the same exact playbook they’ve been using.” He explained “[NBC] missed a real opportunity to create personalized channels for each sport that could’ve provided intimate and informal behind the scenes access. No longer do they need to just curate the “best of the best” to air in prime time, they can expand those efforts to deliver constant stories about more sports and athletes in their own unique channels.” He added “They could’ve produced a members only VIP type of experience on Snapchat for each of the sports — with each channel having a set of channel hosts.” By expanding the number of dedicated channels focused on each sport would also allow NBC to bring in more diverse voices, “picking from former athletes, celebrities, fans, and experts.”


Murray also suggested that NBC provide more significant coverage during the qualifying stages for each of the sports, or as he described it “Actually bring me on the road to the Olympics and help me become more emotionally invested in the people and the sports.”


A Community Viewing Experience: Craig Swanson, a Principal at Booz Allen Hamilton suggested “I would love to be able to share my interests or to have the station learn the events I like to watch and suggest other events in some lineup I should consider. Also, I would like to have been able to set some sort of event priority, and been notified when the events were going to occur to either set my DVR or to stream.” “I would say hands down the best experience I’ve had this Olympics was watching an event with other people that appreciate or were knowledgeable of the sport/event and we’re rooting for their country,” before suggesting that NBC (or Team USA) provide a “Google hangout type experience” or virtual viewing party along with the Olympics.


NOTE: During the World Cup in 2014, U.S. Soccer hosted four viewing parties to encourage community viewing of the Men’s National team. One of the viewing parties at a lakefront park near Soldier Field in Chicago drew over 28,000 fans. In 2015, thousands of fans gathered at watch parties hosted by U.S. Soccer to view the US Women’s National Team.


Handles and Hashtags. Tammy Gordon, who founded of AARP Studios, a multimedia content creation and distribution team designed to boost social sharing of in the over-50 demographic, and now advises leaders and executives on how to develop, cultivate and grow their personal social brands told me “I would have also loved to have seen social handles on screen when they were competing. I would get stoked about someone, Google to find their handle and then go back and tweet them encouragement or congratulations. It’s just lazy to not do that in 2016.” She also added, in response to the International Olympic Committee’s explicit prohibition against media’s use of Olympic materials into Gifs, “Also, stop being the GIF police.”


Uninterrupted Coverage: Martha Kempner, a writer, consultant, and sexual health expert, explained: “I want to watch an event from start to finish. I want to see it in order. And I don’t want just to see just the Americans. I want some commentary to help me know whether the athlete I’m watching is doing well and maybe one or two anecdotes about each of the athletes. But that’s it. Don’t cut to reel on their hometown. And don’t cut away to a different sport. The coverage was like poor attention span theater and I pretty much gave up.”


A second screen that adds value: NBC offered a second screen application to enhance viewing of the primetime Olympics coverage. The app “The premier second-screen experience of the Rio Games, the Primetime Companion takes you deep into the action and tells the stories behind the athletes and competition. As you watch Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Simone Biles and the rest of your favorite Olympians compete, the Primetime Companion provides real-time athlete bios, videos, highlights, features, fun facts, quizzes, photos and more. “ But Erin Kassoy Falquier, a clean energy and climate solutions strategist suggested that NBC make it so their app could “sync up to provide info on the equipment [the athletes] are using, recent technology advances, etc.”


NOTE: Wired Magazine focused much of its coverage of the 2016 Olympics on the technology used by athletes, including stories about the science behind sports including swimming and gymnastics and an article about the bow used by Olympics archers.


Make Coverage Fun Again. Christine Senne, a water, environmental, governmental, and business lawyer from Florida, explained “I feel like there was a near-cynical polish to the NBC presentation. People loved Leslie Jones in Rio (and Tara Lipinsky and Johnny Weir in Sochi) because she is enthusiastic and unpolished. She’s happy when people win and sad when they lose. She has an opinion on whether or not things are fair. She appears to have a heartbeat. Bob Costas and Matt Lauer have NO voice inflection or pathos in their delivery. It’s not fun. The Olympics should be fun. And the commercials made it hard to get my kids excited. If kids aren’t watching, then viewership will decline.”


No More Al Trautwig. Diane Rosen, an OBGYN in St. Louis, MO, addressed the coverage of the gymnastics specifically, saying “The coverage was very spotty and only highlighted the leaders. The men’s gymnastics coverage was terrible. They basically showed a few routines of people who placed and some Americans. Overall was very disjointed. Also, Al Trautwig has got to go!”


Care About Cord Cutters. Bre Holt, a non-profit health expert in Seattle, suggested “It would be great if they recognized that these days many families don’t have TV, and did a better job making their online streaming videos both easily available and making their app/web/streaming options easy to use. We wound up watching through the web, through an app on our Fire TV, and through an app on my phone, and all worked differently/were organized differently, and all made it challenging to watch in ways that worked for a real family. For example the choice was basically between watching just highlight video of the end of an event, or watching a 3 hour stretch of multiple events, with no ability to pause and come back to where you were in the streaming, and no ability to fast forward or rewind within it. Made it pretty challenging to watch what we wanted to. Also if they could get rid of the American-centric and sexist commentators, that would be great.”


Better Options. Brenton Henry wrote on Medium: “Had NBC offered the entire Olympic Platform for a small fee (less than $10), they probably would have seen their Millennial numbers skyrocket. Hell, they could have charged $5 more for an “Ad Free” presentation and padded their pockets even more. But instead, they relied on the old dying models of traditional broadcast network and revenue models of years past, and it bit them in the ass.


New Announcers: Jonathan Kaplan, a communication officer at the Open Society Foundation in Washington, DC suggested “They need better announcers who actually understand the sport; and older announcers need to go — they’re way to chummy with the athletes (Rowdy Gaines on swimming, Phil and Paul on cycling).”


Value Engagement Not Attention: Katrina Galas, a professional in the business of sport industry believes “the foundation of fan engagement is being able to watch something live, in real-time. While NBC continues to prioritize profitability by forcing live events into primetime, they will continue to under-deliver in engagement.” She added “Perhaps, if they found an ROI model around robustly valuing engagements, exposure, branded content, etc. they could see the increased value of live broadcast for all of the sports (and ceremonies!).”


Sports — and sports media — is part of everyday life. And while almost everyone is a sports fan, every fan has their own interests and questions—their fan experience is unique. We know that fans need more and better information to help support their interests. As NBC considers ways to improve or augment their coverage of the Olympics to expand their audience once again, they might consider thinking less about how to package and present the Games, and more about what audiences expect and enjoy from their fan experience.

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