TV by the Numbers: More Olympics Platforms Mean More Viewing

Written by Robert Seidman.

It’s not often that the peacocks at NBC have much to puff their feathers out about. Other than The Today Show and The Tonight Show, NBC has consistently been the fourth-place network (behind FOX, CBS and ABC) when it comes to primetime programming. But the summer has been good to NBC. It has the season’s biggest hit with America’s Got Talent, as well as the Beijing Olympics, the rights for which it paid a reported $894 million. Given the fabulous ratings for the Olympics so far, not to mention the advertising revenue, which is expected to top $1 billion, it’s a good time to be at NBC.

The network, much to my delight, has also just rolled out the TAMi (Total Audience Measurement Index), which seeks to measure viewing across all of the available platforms – television (broadcast, cable, DVR and on-demand), online, and mobile. The free flow of data is good, and while NBC clearly isn’t looking to use TAMi as a way to sell advertising, it is looking to use it as a way to maximize television, video-on-demand, mobile and online viewing. It is a test-and-learn platform for NBC, for which I think the network should be applauded.

NBC has definitely embraced all of the various platforms for the Summer Olympics, and better still, plans to use TAMi for its regular news and entertainment programming as well. Some key data after four days of Olympics programming:

– TV is still king, with 90 percent of the exposure to Olympics content coming exclusively via TV viewing, with the greatest share coming from the broadcast network mother ship, NBC

– Only 10 percent of those in the U.S. are viewing the Olympics both online and on the Internet

– Only two-tenths of 1 percent in the U.S. are viewing content exclusively on the Internet

Though I imagine these numbers would change measurably if NBC was livestreaming all events on the Internet, I don’t know that the change would be significant. People are used to what they are used to and change does not come rapidly. Not everyone has broadband and as NBC’s head of research Alan Wurtzel points out, all the data suggests that people want the best viewing experience they can possibly get and if they can view it on their widescreen in high definition, they will.

It’s to be expected that NBC will claim that the Internet and other platforms aren’t cannibalizing the broadcast television network, but rather are additive. This certainly seems to be the case for the Olympics. Among the 10 percent who are watching both on TV and the Internet, Wurtzel notes that about 60 percent of that viewing is essentially using the Internet as a DVR to catch up on missed events, but around 40 percent of it is re-watching events they saw on TV and enjoyed. From NBC’s perspective all of this is viewing it wouldn’t have captured if it didn’t use multiple platforms, and to a large degree, I agree.

I’m often tormented to the point of wanting to grab an Anchor Steam when I see reports detailing data of new media success. The trend is up, and that is something to be excited about, but I frequently see stories like this one, celebrating MTV’s success of online viewing of the Jonas Brothers clips on MTV and six million streams equaling more than 60,000 hours of programming and outperforming web streaming for The Hills finale. But when six million streams produce 60,000 hours, that means that average viewing was a mere 1.6 minutes 36 seconds per stream. The overwhelming preponderance of data suggests that the average Internet video viewing is well under 3 minutes. The overwhelming preponderance of data suggests that the average Internet video viewing is well under 3 minutes.

Here’s the thing: TV is still king. If The Hills draws four million average viewers for an hour, that’s four million hours of viewing; in that case, 60,000 hours represents but 1.5 percent of total viewing. It’s not nothing, but it’s just 1.5 percent. And 60,000 hours of viewing compared to something like the Olympics, for which, last night alone, NBC had 38.97 *million* hours of viewing does not even make up two-tenths of 1 percent of total viewing. New media reporters owe it to themselves to do their homework now that cross-platform data like this is actually available and such comparisons can be made.

For now, mobile and VOD are absolutely tiny. Online isn’t tiny, but it’s not as big as many of us would sometimes like to believe. The good news is this: Online viewing will definitely grow, and NBC plans to extend TAMi to all programming, including shows like Heroes and Chuck. It seems to me that at some point they can’t experience truly impressive growth — be in online, with VOD, or mobile — without ultimately cannibalizing the broadcast network.

The Olympics is a huge event, with many hours of programming, which means that NBC gets more total viewing because of multiplatform availability. But because there are 3,600 hours of programming over a couple of weeks, and only 56 hours or so that wind up being broadcast in primetime on the broadcast network (including the portions that actually run past the official primetime end at 11 p.m.), any cannibalization would be masked.

But it seems inevitable that as broadband usage grows, it will cannibalize viewing from the broadcast network. Heroes is only on once a week for one hour, with around 24 new episodes a year. Especially for those who have no DVR and could not watch it live, online really is additive viewing. Best of all is the level of control it gives over the viewer experience. More and more, people will watch programming (except probably sports and other major live events) on their own terms.

From all appearances, that cannibalization is still a ways into the future, and by the time it happens it may not matter so much to the networks. Why? Because if a show like Heroes drops down to 8 million hours of viewing on the broadcast network, but picks up 6 million hours of viewing via other platforms, the networks will still be able to sell it, and they won’t care. Certainly in the case of the summer Olympics in Beijing, more platforms equals more viewing. That’s great news for everyone.

Again, I tip my cap to NBC. While I agree with NBC that TAMi can’t or shouldn’t be used as an advertising currency, it is a great testing ground for understanding how all the platforms tie together, I hope NBC will release all the TAMi information available for all programming. When we kicked off last September, we did so with a virtual panel on Internet Video metrics. From our perspective there hasn’t been a lot of progress since then. TAMi may not be perfect — it certainly will not measure illegal downloading or streaming sites — but it’s at least a good start, and hopefully one that will lead to standard measurements used by all content providers.

Robert Seidman co-edits the blog which focuses on television metrics.