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Taking stock: NBC learning about changed viewer habits

NEW YORK (AP) — For future Olympics, NBC says it will look at how some of its tech-savvy customers are programming the games themselves for advice on putting together its own broadcasts.

The network is getting ready to pull up stakes in Rio de Janeiro after Sunday's closing ceremony. NBC's prime-time ratings are down from the 2012 London Games, yet its telecast had still averaged 26.8 million viewers a night over nearly two weeks, a gathering not seen in prime-time television much anymore.

The Rio Games starred Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, Michael Phelps (again) and Usain Bolt (again), and have been a success for U.S. athletes. Given the pre-games publicity about filthy water and security, it will be a victory for Brazil if the biggest news story is about Ryan Lochte and his drunken swimming buddies.

Among the surprises for NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus is the number of consumers watching the Olympics on wired televisions. Instead of watching NBC's broadcasts, they essentially create their own TV shows out of material streamed by NBC. The network will study how those personalized programs differ from what the network offers.

"It could be an informative tool to how we actually program prime time," Lazarus said. "Is following an event for 45 minutes a good thing, or should we be more whipping around the games? I'm not making a declaration here. These are some of the things we have to think about as we analyze this information."

NBC's prime-time Olympics has been a consistent mix of live and plausibly live stories that flow in narrative style and focus on four or five main sports to the virtual exclusion of others. Critics say it's a vestige of a time before Olympic action and results weren't available at people's fingertips.

Humberto Farias, CEO and co-founder of the digital company Fanhero, set up a television at work to take online programming; NBC is streaming all of the Olympic competition live to its website and app.

"I'm not held hostage by the TV program as much," said Farias, 33. "I can pick and choose what I want."

Farias' company builds content to share on social media, and he has a handful of clients in Rio. He believes personalization is the key to success for NBC at future Olympics.

NBC gets constant heat on social media for tape-delayed material, yet its prime time from Rio had far more live events than London because of the time difference. With Asia and its pronounced time differences being the site of the next three Winter and Summer Olympics, that will likely continue to be an issue. Through Wednesday night, prime-time viewership was down nearly 18 percent from London, and is likely to sink further.

In retrospect, it was a long shot that Rio would beat London in the ratings. London was the most-watched Olympics ever that did not originate in the United States. Live television's audience has rapidly fragmented since then, aided by rapid growth of streaming services and binge watching.

"Linear viewership is never going to reach those levels again, unless the games are on U.S. soil," said Billie Gold, research chief at the advertising firm Amplifi US.

More alarming is the falloff in younger viewers, even as NBC tried new ways to court them, like bringing in Ryan Seacrest to host a late-night Olympics show. In the demographic sweet spot of viewers aged 18 to 49, prime-time Olympic viewing is down 26 percent so far, the Nielsen company said. The median age of an Olympic viewer is 50.

Lazarus believes young viewership was hurt by the Olympics starting some 10 days later than London; more people are heading to school. To a limited extent, NBC also cannibalized its own audience by making streams of its telecast available online and by having cable networks show the Olympics during prime time, both for the first time, he said.

NBC pushed to soften the blow of ratings decreases midstream by publicizing a prime-time viewership number that included people who were streaming Olympic material online or watching it on cable. To advertisers in particular, the network notes the sheer amount of Olympics material available and the increase in consumption outside of prime time.

"We made the commitment to have the most consumer-friendly and viewer-friendly games that we could," Lazarus said. "I understand everyone wants to talk about prime-time ratings. I think it really doesn't tell the whole story. It certainly doesn't tell the whole story about how we feel about the games."

Since that marquee broadcast is still where the vast majority of Americans watch the Olympics — and where 75 percent of the advertising spending is directed — its ratings will continue to get outsized attention, though.

Lazarus took note of technical improvements that aided viewers: showing the effect of wind on archery contestants or the angles of dives in the pool, for instance. NBC's decision to station a camera in the swimmers' wait room produced the meme of the games in Michael Phelps' grumpy face. The network also received unwanted attention for perceived sexism among some announcers and for having only one female play-by-play announcer.

"When you're putting together nearly 7,000 hours of content over 17 days, the coordination that our company pulls together is remarkable," he said. "I don't think there's a real appreciation of what it takes to pull this off. It's a little disheartening when people want to beat us up over the little things. I think the body of work is something that I could not be more proud of."

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