NBC’s Olympic Fool’s Gold; Google Comes Home Empty-Handed

These are the most watched games in Olympic history. The opening ceremony was the biggest television event since the Super Bowl reaching 34.2 million American viewers, according to Nielsen Ratings. Michael Phelps’ historic swimming captured the nation. The recognition and use of online tools and video by NBC is commendable.

So, does NBC deserve a gold medal? On the surface and by old measures, they would reach the apex of the podium, but that would be fool’s gold. Here’s why:

Michael Phelps Olympics

1. There’s This Thing Called the Internet

For one of Phelps’ gold medals, NBC showed the action live in every time zone except on the West Coast, which was delayed three hours. Is Dick Ebersol not aware of a thing called the Internet? NBC failed to do what others learned long ago: beg, borrow, and make better is the way of the Web.

Too many companies — in this instance, NBC — believe their problems are unique when it comes to the Web. Often, however, other companies have already wrestled with similar issues.

Back in June, ABC made the right decision by streaming the Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate 18-hole playoff to decide the U.S. Open Championship live on the Web, in addition to their television coverage. Company Web servers cringed and America’s productivity declined in March Madness-like fashion on Monday, June 16, but ABC and the PGA captivated millions of viewers on the Web.

Why wouldn’t NBC have done the same in this instance? Most likely because…

2. Old Metrics are Deceiving

They’re fooling themselves with old metrics. Sure, NBC is happy to show less popular events online, but not precious events like swimming and gymnastics.

Why? Because NBC and their advertisers (Adidas, Samsung, Volkswagen, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, etc.), are judging themselves by old metrics. And that is fool’s gold. They’re judging success on archaic Nielsen Ratings. They would be better served opening up their online viewership because:

  1. It’s more measurable.
  2. It has a younger audience.
  3. Users can’t “TiVo” through commercials.
  4. Users are willing to give you valuable demographic information like name, age, gender, etc. in return for video.
  5. It increases — not decreases — your total viewership, which means more eyeballs on those advertisements.

3. Don’t Lie to Your Audience

NBC treated viewers with little regard, indicating that Dara Torres would be up in 14 minutes…35 minutes later she finally swam her race. Worse, one night they indicated Phelps would be on in 32 minutes, and then when the time came, it was four minutes about his eating habits — he wasn’t even swimming! Not to mention the whole CGI opening ceremony debacle.

4. Dead Air = Missed Opportunity

They got it right showing basketball in the early morning hours (8 and 10 EST) online; however, they missed two golden opportunities.

First, there was no option to hear announcers. For events like cycling this is somewhat difficult to follow.

Second, and much worse for their advertisers, there weren’t any advertisements during downtime. So, during basketball timeouts there was just a wide shot of the court for awkward three-minute intervals. Why wouldn’t you use this opportunity to give your advertisers more love or even add additional advertisers? This technology has been around for almost a decade (remember how Mark Cuban became a billionaire?).

5. Google Failed

It’s potentially understandable that an older-school company like NBC may get some things wrong, but Google didn’t exactly turn in a world record performance either.

When lesser known athletes burst on the scene, the search engines had a difficult time serving up relevant search results. When USA’s David Neville dove in a gallant effort to capture the bronze in the 400 meters the search results on Google showed an actor/model by the same name, along with a company that could help you find people’s phone numbers.

These poor search results were consistent for many of the athletes, so much so that Yahoo and MSN attempted to manipulate the results by hand, as Nathania Johnson covered in great detail for the Search Engine Watch blog. Google finally threw in the towel this week and has pushed news feeds and Wikipedia results to the top of the listings for many of the athletes and this has corrected some of the issues. More and more people may start going straight to Wikipedia; Jamaican speedster Usain Bolt’s page was updated within seconds of him breaking the record in the 200m.

Also, the last-minute nature of the YouTube/NBC deal is laughable. It’s not like YouTube is new. Also, since Google owns YouTube, they should’ve placed a sponsored listing explaining how the deal didn’t cover the U.S. So a search here for “Olympics on YouTube” yielded frustrating results.

That being said, NBC did many things better this time around (for instance, the Microsoft Silverlight picture quality online is amazing); they just don’t deserve a gold medal. NBC failed to leverage best practices in regards to combining offline and online content. A bronze, or perhaps even a silver medal, is in order.

However, the scary thing is that Google probably doesn’t medal at all. Is Google now just like any other big and methodic company? Not quite, but they probably should evaluate their performance here and make some changes for the next big media event, otherwise they may have to pass the torch to the “next Google” sooner than they expect.

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