Eyes on the Olympics


There are only a few guarantees in life. You will eventually pay taxes to the government. (They will find you if you don’t.) You will eventually die. (Morbid, I know.) And the final guarantee? My mother is watching television as you read this.


Not a day went by during my childhood when the television was not tuned to Magnum, P.I., or Murder, She Wrote. I got to watch Saturday morning cartoons and Square One on PBS, but the television belonged to my mother. She would flip between ABC and CBS and NBC, eventually adding Fox and basic cable to her channel selection. I marveled at her ability to watch three or four shows at once and never see a commercial. It was as if she had a sixth sense about commercial pods.


The takeaway from this story is that a television is always on somewhere, and that impacts advertising in February. While the normal highlights include the Super Bowl and the Oscars, 2014 adds the Winter Olympics on NBC. More and more televisions will be on as people watch these events, and viewing habits will shift in order to catch everything that happens during this short month.


Beyond the success of NFL football and The Voice, NBC doesn’t have much in the way of a primetime lineup. While programs such as Community, and Parks and Recreation have survived the chopping block, ratings continue to dwindle. With the Olympics, NBC will offer “appointment” television and wall-to-wall coverage. Add the cable component, and NBC Universal will get the top-rated programming it needs.


Streaming like Summer

Streaming through smartphones, tablets, or laptops has changed the way viewers consume television since the last Winter Olympics in 2010. Because of this, looking at numbers from four years ago may not be a true indication of what will happen this month; statistics from the 2012 Summer Olympics likely offer a better comparison.


The 2012 Summer Olympics was a ratings bonanza, with viewerships up 20 percent over normal PUT (people using television) levels. Networks outside the NBC Universal family benefited from the additional viewership, too, with Spike and AMC building on strong primetime numbers with lifts of 27 percent and 12 percent, respectively. NBC Universal properties saw double-digit increases over non-Olympic programming, with NBC the biggest beneficiary.


Viewership shifts occurred in all genres, and many competing networks saw losses during the two weeks of the Olympics. TBS, TWC, MTV, FX, and Hallmark saw up to 30 percent declines during the Summer Games. News networks such as Fox News and CNN saw viewership losses as high as 35 percent and 50 percent, respectively.


Viewership retention was a healthy 4 percent, however, with networks such as Spike and Discovery building on increased viewerships. News networks such as MSNBC and CNBC capitalized on Olympic coverage, increasing their audiences as well. General entertainment stations such as Nick at Night, TNT, and SoapNet were able to regain lost viewership, and ESPN took back audience from NBC Sports.


Viewership shifts also happen around the Super Bowl. The big game is the No. 1 program of the year, so PUT levels increase as the day goes on. Each year, the NFL and whichever network airs the Super Bowl expect to see record viewership numbers. The 2013 contest between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers eclipsed the 100 million viewer level for the fourth year in a row, and with record-breaking :30 pricing, Fox is likely to be a huge winner this season.


Networks can expect big losses in viewership that first Sunday of the month. News nets will be hit hardest, with losses in the 35 percent range. ESPN will suffer higher-than-usual dips of 10 percent to 15 percent, while entertainment networks such as E! and Comedy Central will see more modest drops. With kickoff at 6:00 p.m. on the East Coast, hour-by-hour slips will begin at 2:00 p.m., on average, and viewers won’t shift back to normal levels until the following day. The big winner on the day after will be ESPN with its postgame coverage.


Normally, networks roll out big guest stars and new plotlines for February sweeps, but the Olympics throws a wrench into those plans. Networks such as ABC are holding their spring premieres until after the games end, with many returning shows coming back in the first week of the March broadcast month. Even the Oscars, which have aired in February for the past two years, are being held until March.


Valentine’s Day falls at the midpoint of the month. Consumers will spend the first couple of weeks finding a perfect gift for that special someone, and then spend the rest of the month bundled up against hypothermia. This is good for the DR marketer, because it means consumers will be sitting on their couches under blankets, watching television. In 2013, response rates were highest during the month of February, but the numbers are sure to flip due to the Olympics.


Normally, February is a good month to test new products thanks to the cold. The Olympics may throw this plan off; viewerships may be up, but they may not translate into the windfall a DR advertiser needs to build on. Consider holding back on testing until March and April to get a better idea of how a product will fare, but keep in mind that March numbers could be inflated with incremental viewership lag from the Olympics.


Viewership shifts will almost certainly wreak havoc with pricing and rate structures. Networks may still ask for top dollar in spite of the lack of viewers. Putting a campaign on hiatus is not an option, but overpaying for underviewed media isn’t, either. Follow the audience and understand who isn’t watching a network to save time and money.


Usually a strong month for response, this February will go against the norm. With so many viewers changing their viewing habits, marketers will likely see lower response rates. Combat this with media plans that revolve around the best performers to ensure that your overall response doesn’t suffer as much, and revenue losses may not be as high.


Increased viewership can help drive awareness for your brand. Retail-push campaigns should work extremely well during the month, but be careful of the networks you air on; avoid news networks and pick stations that are pushing new episodes to dedicated viewers and others flipping channels.


Going back and forth between two programs should be an Olympic sport. It requires a keen sense of concentration and superior hand-eye coordination. Only the best can excel, and my mother would be a gold medal winner. I just hope that someday I can be as quick as she is.



Eddie Wilders is vice president of research and analytics for Lockard & Wechsler Direct in Irvington, N.Y. He can be reached via email at [email protected] or by telephone at (914) 591-6600.