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Are esports really to blame for the Olympics’ lackluster viewership?

Are esports really to blame for the Olympics’ lackluster viewership?

I assume you heard that the Olympics just happened. That’s good, because in NBC CEO Steve Burke’s worst-case scenario, millennials could have been “in a Facebook bubble or a Snapchat bubble” and the Olympics could have passed them by entirely without their knowledge. Were you on Facebook earlier this month? I was, and it sure was full of people talking about the Olympics, and believe it or not, so was Snapchat! I saw official stories, as well as friends posting videos of themselves being psyched about Simone Biles’ gold medals or my old fencing teammates bummed that Miles Chamley-Watson and the rest of the Men’s foil squad only managed to eke out a bronze medal.

Bloomberg Technology reported this week that during the Olympics, viewership during the 8-11pm timeslot broadcasters call primetime “has been down about 17 percent compared to the London games four years ago.” They quoted Brandon Ross, who works for the market analytics firm BTIG Research, saying that “Sports is less ingrained in the younger demographic. It has been replaced by other things like video games and e-sports and Snapchat feeds.”

Ross isn’t wrong that esports and the Olympics compete.

At some level, Ross isn’t wrong that esports and the Olympics compete. He may not have known it was on, but I did watch a lot of The International 2016 while the Olympics were running. The process was easy: I went to Twitch.tv and there was TI6, right on the main page. If you googled “NBC olympics online” what you got was a page called How to Watch the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. On the actual streaming page, their schedule UI looks suspiciously like a TV Guide.

On the other hand, Valve was pleased to report that The International hit 4.6 million concurrent viewers last year. The League of Legends final hit about 8.5 million, and these numbers are global. The problem is less that millennials (currently ages 16-36) are watching the Twitch personality Ster stream Overwatch to 5,000 people and more that NBC wants to own the “prime time” block and doesn’t have the infrastructure to compete in an era where Netflix has almost 50 million subscribers, (and possibly twice as many users). They skew low in age, but it’s not like the oldest members of your family don’t know what Netflix is.

If you’re going to blame game and esports for taking viewers away from TV, at least consider what online content offers that traditional broadcasting doesn’t. Once people know they can usually watch what they want and watch it live, the NBC-sponsored program of events Americans do well in (swimming and gymnastics mostly) is kind of lackluster, especially when the results are popping up live on your twitter feed before the tape-delayed event even runs. It’s silly to blame this drop on a generational gap (especially when you’re looking at a 25% drop across the enormous 18-49 age range) and not on a media landscape that’s in the midst of permanent changes.

NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus said, “We … understand that to millennials and younger viewers, prime time is really ‘my time.’ They want to watch on their terms, and that’s why moving forward we’ll continue to adapt to viewer behavior with our coverage on multiple platforms.” I get that Lazarus’ job involves summarizing what he sees happening in the market into cute phrases and packaging them up so that even more detached people can make decisions based on that advice, but “my time” is so bad. NBC has never owned what they call “primetime.” There have always been things to do from 8-11 P.M. that aren’t TV.

Their approach to modernizing the broadcast was subpar.

NBC’s biggest problem, though, was probably that their approach to modernizing the broadcast was as subpar as the International Olympic Committee’s attempt to modernize the games. There were 15 days of Olympics and 306 different events to cover, and gifs were outlawed. Did you know that they’ve been adding such hip and kid-friendly sports as BMX biking (new since 2008) and golf (new this year)? NBC also offered  “Virtual Reality (VR) programming” and 8K video, but they couldn’t figure out how to make their content accessible. You had to have a TV subscription (you’d see ads anyway), and you have to log in with it. They gave you five free minutes however, of replay or live coverage online—but more like four if you were to factor in how long the player took to load up. In lieu of a real strategy, NBC and the IOC are trying more of what they’ve done so far.

John Martin, the CEO of Time Warner was quoted as saying that “Online offerings may have cut into NBC’s Olympics audience on TV.” He continued, “I wonder if there was less [online] content available … whether that would bolster [traditional network] ratings.” It might, but it’s more likely that folks would find something else to watch. The new media landscape is about choice, and if NBC aren’t interested in providing that in their Olympic coverage, they’re going to see their numbers suffer for it.

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