NBC's prime-time coverage of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, will air live across the United States, including on the West Coast, a first since the Games became a major television attraction in the late 1960s.
The move to coast-to-coast live coverage is an acknowledgement that holding back results or highlights for any part of the audience is no longer a viable option as viewers have instant access to information immediately through online platforms and digital devices.
The plan is also aimed at staving off any further erosion of the Olympics TV audience. NBC's coverage of the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro averaged 25.4 million viewers over 17 nights last summer, a massive audience, but down 18 percent from the 2012 Games in London.
Some of that loss was attributed to the growth in viewing the Olympics online. Streaming of live video of Olympic action on NBC's apps reached 2.7 billion minutes, nearly double the amount for all previous Games.
Jim Bell, president, production and programming for NBC Olympics, told the Los Angeles Times that making the Games live coast-to-coast is a way to address evolving viewer habits while "reasserting" television's status as the preeminent medium for coverage.
"We're streaming it live, and social media has become so ubiquitous that it's hard to ignore even for people who are trying to avoid it," Bell said. "It just seemed like it was the right time to take this step."
Since social media reached critical mass, Olympic TV viewers have frequently groused about seeing events on delay. In response, the network has loaded as much live coverage as possible into the prime-time hours of 8 to 11 p.m., when the most TV viewers are available to watch.
Even when NBC Olympic coverage was live in prime time, viewers in the Western and Mountain time zones, accounting for 20 percent of the country, were seeing it on a two- or three-hour delay. Bell said the Games actually have a history of performing better in the Western half of the country despite that delay. But the traditional scheduling seems even more archaic since NBC streams coverage of all Olympic events live online.
NBC's move also reinforces the belief that live TV audiences are a more valued commodity in an age when viewers choose to watch scripted TV shows online or through on-demand platforms rather than at a set time scheduled by a network. Live viewers are more likely to sit through commercials.
"Live television is the backbone of linear TV — sports in particular and the Olympics at the top of that list," Bell said.
Making coverage live across all time zones has been taking hold in other areas of the industry. NBC recently announced plans to put the last four episodes of this season's "Saturday Night Live" live across the country — putting in prime time in the Western and Mountain time zones — so that the entire country can share the experience of its pointed political satire, which has driven the sketch comedy show to its highest ratings in 24 years.
Awards shows — which have become major drivers of traffic on social media — have increasingly moved to live telecasts across the country. The Golden Globe Awards on NBC have aired live coast-to-coast since 2010. CBS gave its West Coast stations and affiliates the option to take the Grammy Awards live starting in 2016.
Stacey Lynn Schulman, executive vice president for strategy, analytics and research for Katz Media Group, which advises TV stations, said a move toward more live telecasts can strengthen the medium at a time when it's under pressure from new technologies that offer so many other options to viewers.
"It's a huge differentiator for television they should play up, especially now, because there is so much on-demand media consumption going on," Schulman said. "There are very few things that make people stop in their tracks and say 'I'm going to change my schedule to watch something on the schedule of someone else.'"
Bell believes the Olympics are among those appointment events, and the time zone for Pyeongchang will aid NBC's live prime-time plans. Major 2018 Winter Olympic events, such as alpine skiing, figure skating and snowboarding, will be scheduled in the morning — putting them in prime time for the East Coast of the United States.
In addition to that coverage, West Coast viewers will see live Olympics events that NBC airs in late night on the East Coast. The programming will be called "Prime Time Plus" — instead of late night — to acknowledge the West Coast audience.
Bell said the network will likely go live coast-to-coast for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
NBCUniversal has $12 billion in rights fees invested in the Olympics. The company has the TV and digital rights through 2032.
Even with the decline in TV viewing, the company said it earned a record $250 million in profits on the 2016 Summer Olympics off of $1.2 billion in ad sales.