Rio 2016

Live From Rio 2016: NBC Sports’ Cordella on the Olympics Digital Explosion

What’s behind the Games’ massive streaming numbers?

The 2016 Rio Olympics will be remembered around the globe as the first truly digital Olympics, and the U.S. is part of that: through Aug. 18, viewers in the U.S. had streamed 2.25 billion minutes of live content, more than 750 million minutes ahead of the combined total of all prior Olympics. What’s driving the growth? It doesn’t hurt that NBC Olympics is streaming every event live (and offering more than 4,500 hours of content online). Also, Rio is only one hour ahead of the Eastern Time Zone. Moreover, it’s easier than ever to stream the content via apps, the web, and connected devices. Rick Cordella, SVP/GM, digital media, NBC Sports Group, oversees the digital coverage of the Olympics and spent a few minutes discussing the efforts from his office in the NBC Olympics portion of the IBC in Barra da Tijuca.

How are things going from your perspective now that we are near the end of the 2016 Olympics?
We’ve been blown away by how many people are streaming and the connected-TV usage overall. We do our projections ahead of the Games, and those are always difficult to put down because you’re basing it on things like the audience four years ago in London, which involved a different time zone, and technology has changed a lot. We try to sell to that particular projected impression number. Well, we were off by 40%: we had 40% more impressions to sell than we anticipated. And that’s a good sign.

Operationally, things have been working well, That is always a fear when you have so much content. We were doing 40-plus concurrent streams out of the gate, which is a lot for anyone, and then we have 151 distinct feeds during the day that are being put up and taken down with new feeds and new encoders. There are 250 highlights a day being pushed out to VOD, to social, and to our own website. And then there is the original programming that we are creating; we’re not only taking in feeds from OBS but pushing out our own content. And lastly, there is the challenge of the editorial staff’s job of helping consumers be able to go out and find the content. So I think we actually did a decent job, and it’s been better than the previous two Olympics I have been a part of.

So how do you approach managing your team, given that the Internet is limitless in terms of how much content you could create?
We start with streaming every competition live. So, if you’re a casual fan who wants to watch Michael Phelps win medals or you are a table-tennis or badminton fan and your sport doesn’t get a lot of primetime coverage, you can watch every single second through our application. That’s a pretty cool thing to say.

And then we go back and find our bread and butter and focus on that, like women’s gymnastics. People fell in love with that team, so we had the Daily Dismount to offer the deeper dive, which was after the live feed of competition [and featured] an expert panel of gymnasts talking about what just happened.

Rick Cordella of NBC Olympics says the digital consumption via connected devices was an amazing success.

Rick Cordella of NBC Olympics describes the digital consumption via connected devices as an amazing success.

You mention the hardcore fans. What is the challenge of serving both the hardcore fans and the casual fans and making sure everyone gets what they need?
Generally speaking, if you’re watching badminton and table tennis, you are probably a hardcore fan, although sometimes there are things like curling that create a fascination and casual fans will come in to watch it. And, overall, OBS does a great job with top-notch announcers on the host feed for those events. The announcers are knowledgeable, they get it; they may not be as American-centric as some of our viewers want, but, in those cases, we can dive in and have a separate announce call. We did that on gymnastics with folks who knew the American participants.

Those hardcore fans don’t miss anything, so I am guessing they can also be demanding of the quality.
Absolutely. And I give a lot of credit to the team [at NBC Sports’ facility in Stamford, CT], because I haven’t heard people complaining about buffering problems or the “NBC, you’re terrible” statements. That just hasn’t been a theme at all this year, and we’re streaming to a record number of people. For example, I was watching equestrian this morning, and there were 15,000 concurrent users. Those are the hardcore fans who are enjoying their sport in a way they haven’t been able to in the past, unless they were there. So I think that’s a pretty cool thing, to bring people the sports they love at the highest level of competition.

Do you think streaming lowers the pressure on the primetime show? For example, those equestrian fans can get their fix without having to be relegated to five minutes of primetime highlights.
I think the NBC programming strategy gets some flack here and there, but [NBC Sports Group Chairman] Mark [Lazarus] correctly points out that, if you want to watch something, you can watch it and it’s available through the computer. And now it’s available through connected-TV devices, and it is easier than ever to get it on your 60-in. flat screen TV.

It’s amazing that my kids who are 8 and 12 years old are watching gymnastics in the afternoon on the TV via the Apple TV. And they know where to go and how to find it. Digital is second nature to them.

There’s a perception that digital is more attractive to the younger viewers than to older. Do you find the audience skews younger?
The average age is certainly younger, much younger than you see on TV. But there are two things to remember about digital. First, we are downstream from the great production at NBC, and we benefit from what [NBC Olympics Executive Producer] Jim Bell and the primetime folks and the daytime folks are doing. So, when we get the men’s basketball games, we get Marv Albert calling the games, and we’re getting top-notch announcers and top-notch people in the sports-production business producing this content for us. So we are very, very lucky to be downstream from that.

And, second, I don’t think the younger viewers want a different type of production. They just want it on different devices than we had growing up.

There are also questions about whether we are cannibalizing the TV audience. In many instances, the answer is no, as these are people who could not get in front of their TV. My kids will sit in their rooms and watch TV on their iPads, and that is their “TV” and their way of watching it. Now, I do think that, as they get older and are able to buy a house and have a big flat-screen on the wall, they would probably prefer it on the big screen. Also, with things like the iPhone, we are seeing people watch for 10 minutes. It’s a check-in device, [whereas] on TV, we are seeing viewing of 90 minutes-plus.

Do you think this is a tipping point with respect to the conversations concerning audience measurement?
Our approach is, we bought the Olympic rights. We didn’t buy TV rights or just the rights for primetime. We bought the Olympic rights on all platforms now and not yet conceived. I think it’s fair to say that, as we push content out there, we want to measure it across the entire portfolio and not just a smaller subset. And I think that is what you are seeing with our total audience delivery

With the Games almost done, do you have any favorite moments?
Women’s gymnastics was probably our biggest audience. And the Usain Bolt races were always interesting because there is nothing like having 300,000 people show up on your doorstep seconds prior to the start of an event, as there isn’t the traditional ramp-up like with American sports. People were in, and people were out.

Technically, I’m just amazed at how big the connected stuff was, because we launched on Apple and Roku and then launched on Fire quietly. And then the Olympics started, and it was a huge surprise to see so many people consuming through something that did not exist too long ago. It went mainstream really fast.