Dan Haar: At NBC Sports, digital Olympic coverage means a tough balance — of everything
STAMFORD — Deep in a far corner of the NBC Sports studios, in a small room filled with young people and electronics, the scurrying picks up as prime time approaches.
Julia Grassie checks over her elaborately color-coded Excel files of notes on Olympic athletes and sports, ready to roll with the scroll at the strike of 8 p.m. east coast time, 10 a.m. the next day in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Grassie will place hundreds of tidbits, explainers, historic quips, quotes and bio facts into onscreen boxes as the games play out 7,000 miles away. We won’t see it on the flagship NBC broadcast or on NBC Sports Channel on cable.
No, these info boxes — along with other onscreen features tracking the competitors’ scores and showing still photos — are part of the vast NBC Olympics digital coverage. It’s happening in real time across several sports, since Grassie and her colleagues in the “enhanced digital” production room can’t know exactly who will appear onscreen ahead of time.
“Sam McGuffie played football at the University of Michigan and Rice. His nickname was the Human Highlight Reel” ... “figure skating costumes rule against excessive nudity…”
“I try to think,” said Grassie, who’s working her third Olympics at NBC, “if I was watching this with my mom, what questions would she ask me?”
It’s all part of a digital strategy for the NBC Olympics that’s basically all things to all people. We’re done making hard choices about what events to show online viewers, NBC said at the Rio de Janeiro Summer Games in 2016.
That means for this month’s games in Pyeongchang, users of the NBCOlympics website and the NBC and cable system apps can not only watch just about every competition live or on-demand later; in some sports they can view bells and whistles like the scroll Grassie produces.
But not forcing choices doesn’t mean NBC sports isn’t making tradeoffs. Presenting all this in a way that works for hard-core fans and casual drop-ins is a tough balancing act.
“They have to be all things to all people but they have to do it in a way that it doesn’t feel that way,” said Ken Fuchs, who has headed Yahoo Sports, Sports Illustrated Digital and Stats LLC.
The key is what Fuchs called a “very clean user experience.”
Is it all too overwhelming, too much for a website or an app?
Organizing 1,800 hours of coverage — highlights, stories, feeds of the linear broadcast, “host” feeds from the Olympic video consortium of every event, info-enhanced versions of key events and studio shows such as Olympic Ice Digital, featuring 1992 gold medal figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi — requires Herculean organization.
It’s a balancing act between curated programming and a sport-by-sport, day-by-day searchable database for viewers who simply must watch the Nigerian bobsled run. (Yes, there was one.)
“It’s an embarrassment of riches in terms of the content we have,” said Rick Cordella, the NBC Sports executive vice president for digital, who lives in Westport but, of course, is in South Korea for the Games.
“Discoverability is always something we strive for. This Olympics is probably the best one yet,” he said. "People say they’re able to find old content pretty quickly."
By old, he quickly adds, he means last week.
Through the first week, NBC Sports announced digital viewers had racked up 1.2 billion minutes of watching, compared with a total of 420 million minutes for the entire Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, four years ago.
That means NBC, a unit of Comcast, can charge advertisers more for coveted, fickle, younger viewers on digital platforms.
It’s happening as traditional, “linear” prime time broadcast programming shows flat or declining viewership. NBC, which paid $12.1 billion for rights to the Olympics from 2012 to 2032, doesn’t say how much of its profit — about $250 million at the Rio games — comes from digital.
To watch most of the digital coverage, a viewer must have a cable TV subscription. There’s no plan to charge by the event or by the Olympics, Cordella said.
This is, after all, part of Comcast.
For the info scroll in the enhanced product, Jack Jackson, vice president for product development in digital, sees it this way: “It’s really to give you the experience of having Julia in your living room.”
So it’s a millennial experience, not just a millennial marketing play, although Grassie, who lives in Stamford, is also aiming at her mother in Arizona.
One tradeoff is that NBC Sports doesn’t typically make its video content — even highlights — available to outside news organizations, through, for example, embed codes that would let news sites host a few seconds of video action.
That would send viewers elsewhere, but it could raise interest in the Olympics. For example, after last Friday’s historic free skate by American Nathan Chen, who landed six quad jumps, I searched for clips of it. I must have perused 40 news sites with headlines such as “You won’t believe what a U.S. skater did,” and not one had a single second of video.
The entire four minutes was on the NBC Sports platforms, of course, though it took some searching on the app. Along with it, more than an hour of commentary — some of it digital only, some streaming from the broadcast feeds — was there for the viewing, on demand. It was broken up by more than the usual amount of commercials for a digital experience, but that, too, is part of the balancing act, Cordella said.
As for keeping the clips close to home, he said, “There’s advertisers that are paying to be on our web site ... At the end of the day they’re underwriting a lot of what we do and we have to make sure they’re satisfied.”
NBC Sports does have agreements with Snapchat and Twitter to share content — millennials can’t be trusted to stay in one lane, after all.
Technically, it’s no problem to stream the numbers the Olympics yields, especially the much smaller Winter Games. Shaun White’s gold medal half-pipe run had 450,000 concurrent digital viewers — compared with a peak of 3.1 million for NBC’s coverage of New England Patriots’ Tom Brady throwing that Hail Mary pass to end the Super Bowl.
So the systems are in place. With more than 1,000 people in Stamford alone during the Olympics, many feeding the digital platforms.
Most digital viewers basically watch a stream of the TV programming, just as most visitors to Yellowstone Park never venture more than 10 feet off the roads. But the back country features have to be there.
“If you’re the superfan, if you’re the information junkie,” Jackson said in the enhanced digital production room as the clock ticked toward prime time, “this is the view you want.”