NBCU Wins The Olympics Through 2020 And That’s Not Bad For Real-Time Fans

After years of railing against NBC (NSDQ: CMCSA) Sports for its real-time failures, my first instinct when the International Olympics Committee picked NBCUniversal to host the 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020 Olympic Games was it could drive online fans crazy. The hefty $4.38 billion price tag, following a $200 million loss for the Vancouver Games and an expected loss for London in 2012, increases the need for Comcast and NBCUniversal to squeeze every last cent out of the opportunity.

In the Jeff Zucker-Dick Ebersol years, that meant pushing viewers to prime time by blocking real-time access online to marquee events. What will it mean for the Steve Burke-Mark Lazarus era?

Turns out NBC’s coast-to-coast live stream of the French Open semi-final match Friday was a good omen for Olympics fans. Lazarus, who succeeded Dick Ebersol as head of the NBC Sports Group, promised in the announcement conference call Tuesday that every event will be live on at least one platform.

The winning bid gives NBCU rights on every platform known today as well as to be conceived over the life of the agreement, Lazarus said. That includes mobile, broadband, tablet and anything that may come up between now and 2020. “It allows us to bring the Games to more people across more platforms than any other property is doing now,” he added.

For its part, the IOC stressed “maximising exposure across all available media platforms” as part of the criteria for choosing a winning bid. That theme carried through in the statement by Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts, who led the NBCU delegation that included Burke, the CEO of NBCUniversal, and Lazarus: “The vision for our new Comcast-NBCUniversal was to create new platforms and technologies to distribute the very best content. Every two years the Olympic Games provides iconic content for us to deliver on all platforms.”

It’s not a total win for online fans; Lazarus isn’t promising the full live feeds provided in some other countries. But it suggests an understanding — finally — that withholding access in a real-time world is a pretense that sucks energy out of the Olympics. TV, especially prime time, is still the showcase, as it should be, and nothing we see on a computer screen, a tablet or smartphone changes that. If anything, watching on multiple platforms will keep people engaged throughout the Games. Depending on how NBCU handles it, the frustrations of knowing others could watch something live when it was blacked out here should give way to a sense of being connected — and, if done right, an interest in watching on the big screen.

Lazarus showed this understanding in his comments following the announcement, citing the “immense” amount of learning by the NBC Olympic team, carefully including Gary Zenkel, the president of NBC Olympics and a veteran of the Ebersol years, as technology improved: “We have a smart plan to let the superfan watch events live and not detract from prime time when we are in host cities where the time zone makes it difficult.” In a separate answer, he said NBCU would still work on prime-time packages that would focus on the shared experience of families and did not think streaming would affect that.

GE-owned NBCU spread the Olympics across its assets but the combined Comcast-NBCU has a much bigger playing field. NBC Sports now includes Versus, The Golf Channel and 11 regional sports nets. “It’s an unprecedented ability to market and to deliver,” Roberts said during the call.

The IOC auction allowed bids for four Games or two. Roberts said the longer-term deal offered better economics for NBCU. ESPN (NYSE: DIS), which had promised a fresh approach with live broadband access, with parent Disney, and Fox each bid for two-game packages. NBCU’s offer ensured the IOC 10 years of financial stability, a key to its win.