Mark Lazarus responds to criticism (cont.)
"I think it is a risk that we have to calculate," Lazarus said. "I do believe it is a risk. The digital experience has taught us that people watching on those devices are interested in watching, and the research has shown that if you watch online or mobile or a tablet that you are more interested to watch it in the evening. I don't know if that will hold true if you have seen it on television. It's a risk and we will have to make a decision about how much of that calculated risk we are willing to take with our investment. And that is a big part of the equation: We have a responsibility to do the best we can for consumers -- and we are respectful of that -- but we also have to make sure we can make our investment. I have seen a few people writing that [the Olympics] is a public trust. You know what, give it to us for free and maybe we would do it differently."
When asked why the ratings have soared higher than Beijing, Lazarus cited a number of factors including the tonnage of NBC's coverage across platforms and the success of U.S. athletes in London.
"I think our strategy of surrounding the consumer with Olympic content has been accepted," Lazarus said. "We have given the consumer access on every platform and allowed them to be part of it. So they've been given the full Olympic experience and that's one reason. I think the consumers at home like to see coronations and the U.S. team has performed very well. Frankly, this is part of national pride and people are excited to be pulling for the team here. And every two years people like to see the various sports that they don't invest in an the way we package and show the stuff gets people invested in the content. There's a passion for the Games that think is undeniable."
Lazarus is not active on Twitter but has followed the dialogue created in the social media space. After seeing the #NBCFail hashtag explode into the marketplace of ideas, Lazarus said his first reaction was to take it personally.
"You can't help but take it personally, and you feel concerned on what effect that might have on morale on the thousands of people who in some cases have been away from their families for 60 or 90 days to be criticized by some things that are fair, some things that are unfair and some things that are flat-out wrong," he said. "I'm not against criticism and I am on the record saying some of the criticism has been fair. When you are doing 7 months of content in 17 days, do I wish that we were mistake-free? Of course. But we are not. That's a reality and I said before the Games that we won't be perfect though we strive to be perfect.
"As far as being defensive, I would say I am protective of the enterprise and the people who have put so much into this and take pride in what they are doing...I wish that [some of the criticism] was more comprehensive with research or with the understanding of what we are doing and how we are doing it. I got an email the other day from someone who said we had only shown five sports in the Olympics. We have shown 30 sports on television and everything else is available online. Frankly, some of the criticism was very personal and targeted and attacked people by name. That's reality but as someone leading this group, any defensiveness I feel is trying to protect people who are so dedicated."
NBC executives can make the argument that the ratings ultimately justify time shifting the opening ceremonies (which drew 40.7 million viewers) and major events in gymnastics, swimming and track. But the network would be wise to heed some of the criticism from what Lazarus called a "loud minority." There is goodwill to be had from consumers by airing some events previous held for primetime on of its platforms, especially on the weekend when more viewers are around to watch the event both live and in primetime. It is something NBC should consider doing in Sochi.
As part of the extended conversation, Lazarus addressed some specific questions that SI.com readers had via email and Twitter about the coverage:
On whether the high ratings justify NBC's philosophy of how it covers an Olympics:
What we fall back on is that a couple of hundred million people voted with all of their devices that they like what we are doing. They might not like every piece of what we are doing but I think it is gratifying that people are tuning in and in record numbers and against, frankly, our predictions. We believed we would have a successful Games, and we believed we were taking new risks with all the streaming and all the live during the day. What we are gratified about is that it has essentially consumed the dialogue in the States for the last two weeks. Does it justify what we are doing? We think it justifies our model and our business plan but we are also in the game of trying to satisfy consumers. Are we going to satisfy everyone? No. We'd like to. But we think we are satisfying people in great numbers.
On whether he would change or modify NBC's philosophy of tape-delaying the major events live, especially for weekend event:
We are very gratified that our plan has worked, not withstanding the criticism, some of which we understand and take note of. Our coverage will evolve. Will it evolve to where people say we have changed completely? I don't know yet. We will wait for more data to come in. We have done some things that we had not planned on doing. When the two tennis gold medal matches became compelling, because tennis audiences are used to seeing finals airing across the board, we decided to change the timeline on those matches so we were live to both coasts on NBC. It was an evolution midstream and the ratings on the West Coast were half of what they were on the East Coast. If we had held it, I bet our ratings would have been higher. It is not evidence in itself that we should keep doing what we are doing but it's another data point that we will think about.