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Media, Fans Going Online for 2008 Olympic Games

August 12, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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While athletes at the Beijing Olympics are breaking records every day, coverage of the Games is itself breaking barriers in the way people are seeking coverage of the events. A media analyst discusses the role of Internet media during the 2008 Games.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Along with the athletic competition and the focus on a changing China, the Beijing games present a prime laboratory to examine new media technology and viewing habits.

For the various components of NBC Universal, these two weeks can feel like all-Olympics, all the time. NBC, which paid nearly a billion dollars for the rights to these games, is broadcasting 24 hours a day on its networks.

There’s daytime coverage on MSNBC and NBC’s flagship broadcast network. In the evening, NBC broadcasts in primetime the marquee events, like gymnastics and swimming. And in the overnight hours, there’s still more coverage on cable.

NBC is also trying to drive viewers to its Web site, NBColympics.com, putting over 2,000 hours of coverage online, including live events, on-demand video, and extensive features.

But in this Internet age, NBC is struggling to enforce its U.S. broadcast rights. Friday’s opening ceremonies, for example, were taped and held for air in the U.S. in primetime nearly 12 hours after they’d begun in China.

But clips popped up all day on popular Internet sites like YouTube. And throughout the first days of the games, NBC was constantly requesting that video of events be taken off Web sites with U.S.-based audiences.

Matthew Futterman of the Wall Street Journal has been watching the games and reporting on the behind-the-scenes of the coverage. He joins us now from New York.

NBC pushes massive coverage

Matthew Futterman
Wall Street Journal
[J]ust the live coverage alone is more than all of the coverage that's been given in all of the previous Olympics.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, in terms of the most important changes this time, is it the sheer availability of viewing opportunities?

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN, Wall Street Journal: Yes, I think that's accurate. I mean, there's roughly 3,600 hours of programming available. And, you know, that's just unprecedented.

The live coverage is more than -- just the live coverage alone is more than all of the coverage that's been given in all of the previous Olympics.

JEFFREY BROWN: Start with the 24-hour television coverage. What's the calculation for NBC in presenting so much?

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: I think they've got a -- they had a lot of complaints over the last few Olympics about not providing coverage of events when they were happening.

The events were happening, and they were happening in other parts of the world, and NBC had cable channels where it could show them, and it was holding back a lot of these events, even stuff that wasn't necessarily high-profile and wasn't going to make it onto the primetime broadcast. They were holding it back and not presenting it.

And I think, in reaction to that, they decided, "OK, we're going to go the other direction. We're going to provide as much as possible and see what happens."

Given a chance, U.S. tunes in

Matthew Futterman
Wall Street Journal
The numbers tell us that people are watching these games in far greater numbers than they've ever watched a non-U.S. games.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is it correct that NBC pushed hard, negotiated hard with the Chinese to get some key events scheduled so that it could be live on the East Coast of the U.S.?

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: I think begged and pleaded would probably be more accurate, given how important it was to get at least some of those events, especially in this first week, in which you have such high-profile events, such -- swimming events and gymnastics events that, you know, it was so important for NBC to get out of the gate strong.

And to get those events in the morning in Beijing, which is live in primetime in the Eastern and Central time zones in the U.S., has really been just a lifesaver for them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so far, what do the numbers tell us about viewership?

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: The numbers tell us that people are watching these games in far greater numbers than they've ever watched a non-U.S. games, and especially for games that are on the other side of the world, which present some real problems.

In 2000 in Sydney, the joke was that, you know, it looked like Bob Costas was being held hostage in a room somewhere in Sydney because he was presenting an entirely tape-delayed Olympics. And that's just not the case here.

And people really seem to be coming to and drawing real energy from what they're seeing live unfolding before them, which has just been incredibly compelling and sort of classic sports television.

And that relay the other night and those images of Michael Phelps really screaming for his teammate, Jason Lezak, to finish that race and swim down the French swimmer, that will be an iconic image that you're going to watch for decades probably.

Internet supplementing broadcasts

Matthew Futterman
Wall Street Journal
[T]he fact that you can go to the Internet and watch highlights from this morning's soccer game with U.S. women, it's going to put the Olympics in your mind throughout the day.

JEFFREY BROWN: So let's turn to the Internet now. We referred to it, but how much of a factor is it in these games, especially compared to the past?

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: I think it's a factor in terms of what's available and in terms of driving coverage. I mean, it's not -- people aren't necessarily -- and this is the important thing for NBC -- people don't -- and their numbers show this -- people are not necessarily using the Internet instead of watching the primetime broadcast.

First of all, there's a lot of great stuff on primetime that isn't available on the Internet. And on top of that, it's just not the same kind of experience, you know, watching on a computer as compared to watching with the big, high-definition televisions that so many Americans have these days.

So it's not cannibalizing the primetime broadcast, which is the bread-and-butter for the network. Instead, I think what they're seeing -- in terms of my own viewing habits and the people that I'm friendly with -- it's driving the coverage.

It's the idea that coverage begets coverage and attention begets attention. And the more that this stuff is on your mind, the more you want to watch it, because it's incredibly compelling.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, but it's interesting, because I referred to this as a kind of laboratory to study these things. In the past, the Internet is often thought of as a competitor to what shows up on the air.

And, as I mentioned, the opening ceremonies, for example, I understand NBC was trying to keep people from watching it online. So now they think it's OK, it's helping drive up their numbers in primetime?

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: Well, no, I think we're confusing two things here. I mean, they will continue to keep people from watching video of events that they want to hold back for primetime, such as the opening ceremonies.

But the fact that you can go to the Internet and watch highlights from this morning's soccer game with U.S. women, it's going to put the Olympics in your mind throughout the day.

I think what they're seeing is that it's really a driver of attention. They had a figure that they mentioned earlier today that something like 1.5 million videos of that relay race the other night were shared, which means essentially people are going to the NBC Olympics Web site and sending them along, and e-mailing the copies of the video to their friends.

You know, that's the kind of viral marketing that people work years to develop. And if that's happening, that can be incredibly helpful to them.

Gauging success in and out of China

Matthew Futterman
Wall Street Journal
[T]he whole trick is to measure that audience and then use it to sell ads from it.

JEFFREY BROWN: That raises another interesting question in the age of the Internet and Tivo and other things, is just counting the audience, knowing how many people are watching.

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: Yes, that's a real goal they have. I mean, if they can count the number of people who are using the Internet, and count the number of people on television, and count the number of people who are paying attention to the Olympics on their mobile phones, the whole trick is to measure that audience and then use it to sell ads from it.

It's the first time that they're really going to try and accumulate all those numbers and then use them as they go forward for the 2010 games in Vancouver and the 2012 games in London, which they've invested billions of dollars in.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, let me just ask you briefly, before all this started, there was a lot of talk and concern about the media's ability to cover events outside the arenas, the news events. Anything that you know so far, any challenges to reporting from Beijing?

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: Last week, there were some reports of it, but you haven't heard much about it these days, at least in conversations with the reporters that I'm working with who are over there.

They do talk of a tremendous amount of security around the games. But they seem to have done a lot of -- used a lot of preventive medicine, so to speak, the Chinese have, in terms of supplying a lot of security and really moving people that they saw as potential threats out of the area, or at least there were a lot of reports of that. And it seems to have worked so far.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Matthew Futterman of the Wall Street Journal, thanks a lot.

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: Thank you.