Goodbye, Olympic tape delay: NBCUniversal to broadcast 2018 Games live worldwide

NBC Sports studio Rio Olympics 2016
NBC has a major presence at the Rio Olympics. Image: NBC Sports

Ending decades of tape delays that frustrated viewers and sent prime-time TV ratings plummeting in 2016, NBCUniversal has decided to broadcast the 2018 Winter Olympics live in all U.S. time zones.

The new strategy, which will be rolled out Feb. 9 as the PyeongChang Games begin, is good news for cable operators, especially NBCUniversal’s own corporate sibling, Comcast Cable, because it will add urgency to the linear broadcast. Progressively over previous biannual Olympics broadcasts, viewers chafed at the packaging of events for prime-time consumption, an effort that ignored the reality that results were widely available on social media as competitions occurred. PyeongChang is 12 hours 30 minutes ahead of the Eastern time zone, but as with previous Olympics, action will occur throughout the day and night.

Neil Smit, the former head of Comcast Cable who passed the baton to Dave Watson earlier this month, talked at the Deutsche Bank media conference about the interplay between the cable and network programming side of Comcast. “The most obvious synergy is the Olympics,” he said. Last year, the company also announced plans for a 24/7 Olympics cable channel, a further sign of round-the-clock demand that won’t be confined by traditional prime-time scheduling.

“Nothing brings America together for two weeks like the Olympics, and that means social media won’t be ahead of the action in any time zone, and as a result, none of our viewers will have to wait for anything,” said Jim Bell, NBC Olympics production and programming president in a statement. “This is exciting news for the audience, advertisers, and our affiliates.”  

The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro proved a study in contradictions. NBCUniversal chief Steve Burke declared the Games to be the most profitable in company history, making $250 million, and yet prime-time ratings plummeted by 18% compared with the 2012 London Games. (Higher ad rates were credited with driving profits, much as prime-time ad revenue increased in 2016 even as broadcast and cable viewership dropped.) The average audience of 25.7 million viewers over 17 nights was undeniably large for late summer, but with tens of billions invested in Olympic rights through 2032, NBCUniversal faced pressure to protect the primacy of the TV experience.

Digital streaming doubled in 2016 as NBCU delivered more than 7,000 hours of coverage. Even so, ultimately just 3% of total Olympic viewing last summer occurred via NBC’s digital platforms. That skinny slice of the pie “shocked” Bell, who said at a conference last fall that the results “simultaneously confused and pleased me. Like, ‘We’re still here. Linear!’”