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Media Zone: From 'Empty Nest' to the Bird's Nest

1 Oct, 2008 By: Response Contributor Response

NBC Universal had its own fair share of record-breaking moments at the Olympic Games in Beijing. Through 16 days of coverage, 211 million viewers tuned into the Olympics across seven different TV networks (NBC, USA, MSNBC, CNBC, Oxygen, Telemundo and Universal HD) and, making it the most watched U.S. television event of all time. Combined, these channels offered more than 212 hours of Olympic coverage per day, resulting in 1,000 more total hours of televised Olympic events this year than the American viewers had seen from all past televised Summer Games combined.

Ben Zimmerman
Ben Zimmerman

To put this into full perspective, the coverage across all platforms rounded out to more than 141 days of coverage condensed into a 16-day period. While the numbers are certainly staggering, most Americans could not get enough of celebrated swimmer Michael Phelps and his quest to become the greatest Olympian ever.

Primetime coverage on the second Saturday of the Games, featuring Phelps eighth and final gold medal in Beijing, recorded a 17.6 Nielsen rating and 32 share — average viewership was 31.1 million and 70 million total viewers tuned in during the broadcast. NBC said this broadcast was the most-watched Saturday show since an episode of "Empty Nest," a "Golden Girls" spinoff, drew in 31.4 million viewers in 1990. I'm not quite sure how a "Golden Girls" spinoff held a record that long, but it is quite ironic considering one of the locations in Beijing where many records were broken — by NBC and athletes alike — was the 90,000-seat Olympic stadium referred to as the Bird's Nest.


The Games Defeat DR


While these numbers were great for NBC, most of us should be glad the games are over. Direct response results were soft across the board throughout August, and especially during the Olympics. Historically, the Olympics had always seen great success in regards to viewership. HUT levels (households utilizing television) increase, but not everyone is glued to table tennis in the non-primetime hours.

In past years, the direct response industry would benefit from the increased viewers who inevitably became channel surfers. Unfortunately, this year's coverage across a multitude of platforms, made it something none of us could be contend with. And while total household viewership may have been up during the time of the games, results were certainly down.


Customized Programming


Aside from the events alone, the accessibility of this year's vast coverage enabled most Americans to program their own Olympic experience. With my digital video recorder (DVR), it was easy to avoid staying up until 3 a.m. to watch China sweep the medals in table tennis.

But the trend of customizing and personalizing viewing habits is one that will continue. Rick Shiu, vice president of media at BeachBody, says, "People tend to watch the competitions when it's most convenient for them. Unfortunately, traditional DR time falls victim to those conveniences, as many choose to watch their DVRs outside of standard primetime and tend to watch during the late night or early morning. So, when people should be channel surfing late at night and stumbling upon infomercials, their DVRs are turned on and viewers are tuned into pre-recorded programming from the Olympics."

And it's not just the television where viewers were getting their content. According to Alan Wurtzel, president of research and NBCU, garnered 70 million page views on opening day — a 900-percent increase from the Athens Games in 2004. In addition, nearly 40 percent of those who watched events online watched them for a second time!

The summer (August in particular) is usually a very tumultuous time for viewership, as most families are squeezing in their last vacation. Now, throw in a crumbling housing market, a down economy and one of the biggest presidential elections in recent history, and you can see why I am glad to say the games have ended.

I'm happy to have the infomercial viewer back with the remote control in one hand and credit card in the other. In the end, I don't think DRTV results for the 2008 Olympic Games were gold-medal worthy, but I do think we learned some valuable lessons. The countdown is on — 1,395 days and counting to the London games.

Ben Zimmerman is executive vice president at Media Design Group. He can be reached via E-mail at or (310) 584 9630.

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