NBC and MSG Use Strategy and Storytelling To Keep Viewers Engaged

Different platforms, different tune-in times call for different programming approaches

For old-media TV producers, it’s all about dayparts. For new-media streamers, platforms are just as critical. A while back, NBC conducted a thorough marketing study to learn about the audience segments that stream its content and discovered that viewers tune in at different times of day, and when they watch determines how they watch.

This means that broadcasters need to program for different platforms at different hours, explained Ted Griggs, president, group leader and strategy, NBC Sports Group, at the Hashtag Sports conference in New York City.

NBC Sports Group’s Ted Griggs (left) and MSG Networks’ Kevin Marotta at last month’s Hashtag Sports conference in New York City

For example, many people tune in on a desktop computer between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.; Griggs calls it “cheating-on-your-boss time.” NBC saw a big spike during lunch hour as well. Podcast listening jumps during commuting time, so NBC tailors its podcasts for the length of the average commute.

“The hardest thing for me to learn was, the same piece of content doesn’t work on different platforms,” he said. “You have to customize it for those platforms. It’s like a piece of lumber: you can cut it different ways for different platforms, but you cannot use the same thing and repurpose it.”

Every technological achievement in television started with sports, he emphasized. Consider HD television, robotic cameras, putting microphones in unusual places, wireless mics. NBC has been lucky, he said, since many of those developments started at the Olympics, where the broadcaster works with a variety of sports simultaneously. The group televising curling found an interesting way to shoot the sport, he recalled, because there were no fixed rules for how curling cameras needed to be placed. Innovations there helped curling find a wider audience, and those innovations were brought into NBC’s wider sports coverage.

Influencers are often targeted by broadcasters looking to reach new online viewers, but Kevin Marotta, SVP, marketing and content strategy, MSG Networks, noted that’s not always the case.

Griggs thinks of these people as “bottle rockets”: they rise quickly, get a lot of attention, but then go right back down again. What sports publishers need are influencers who can work as a one-person band, with a strong social presence plus the ability to create audio, write, and perform well on traditional television.

Griggs recalled an experience with a documentary producer. “I was talking to him one day and said, ‘Hey, man, you have to get into editing. You have to edit.’ He said, ‘I’m editing right now!’ He was on an Amtrak train. He had his laptop, and he was editing. In my mind, editing is walking into a big suite with a soundboard and all this stuff. Technology gives you that facility to be able to do that.”

Responding to an audience question on marketing vs. fan engagement, Griggs and Marotta agreed on the necessity of a fan-first approach. If broadcasters lead with a tune-in message, they said, it’s not going to work.

Leading with a fan-first message is crucial, Marotta noted. Only a few years back, publishers were trying to figure out the most enticing tune-in message. Now they try to figure out how to keep fans excited in a match and to ask what’s the story they want fans to engage in.

Streaming offers a variety of metrics, and Griggs, coming from a producing background, said that he has become a data nerd. He can’t wait to see the metrics reports each morning, excited to see what headline or video or article really popped the day before. He can’t wait to hear what the customer is telling them, because, with each lesson, the company gets smarter and can do a better job. He didn’t expect to get excited by data, he said, but that’s what has happened.

For all of the technological advances in sports broadcasting, he added, basic storytelling is still at the heart, and no tech is going to replace that: “I think technology’s great. I think the customer always wins, but I do think that we have to value the storytelling. I’ve done a thing where I can select my own camera, and I’ve actually directed sporting events, but guess what? I can’t cut a baseball game as well as a real baseball director. Those guys are artists. … These guys really know what they’re doing. They can pick shots and tell stories better.”