Olympic training at the CBC

Here’s a sneak peek at the the March 11 issue of Marketing. Can CBC apply the lessons from Vancouver 2010 and #NBCFail to make Sochi a financial success? The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics are less than a year away and the heat is on CBC/Radio-Canada. The Mother Corp. is no newbie when it comes to […]

March 12, 2013

Here’s a sneak peek at the the March 11 issue of Marketing.

Can CBC apply the lessons from Vancouver 2010 and #NBCFail to make Sochi a financial success?

The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics are less than a year away and the heat is on CBC/Radio-Canada. The Mother Corp. is no newbie when it comes to broadcasting Olympic games, but a great deal has changed since its last big show – the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

At the time, the first iPad was still two years away and the economy was just about to slip into the Great Recession. Media habits are different today, and so is the business model for Olympic broadcasting.

Despite drawing record audiences, Canada’s Olympic Broadcast Media Consortium lost between an estimated $20 million to $50 million on the Vancouver Games, paying a premium to get the hometown Olympics. And the fact that Bell opted not to pay what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) wanted for Sochi and Rio de Janeiro 2016 says something about the cost-benefit analysis of broadcasting the Olympics – especially one where the only viewers watching many events live will be doing so in the middle of the night or early morning. With the stakes high, the CBC is busy laying the ground work to make Sochi a success. “Our goal has always been that it needs to be a moneymaker,” says Alan Dark, general manager of CBC’s revenue group.

For one, it will be taking a cue from the consortium’s live coverage model. “The thing I loved about the consortium is they changed the game,” says Dark, of the Bell/Rogers broadcasts. The consortium used Bell’s main CTV network along with the TSN and Sportsnet channels as well as online to broadcast every minute of nearly every event live. “Having live sport on when it happens has changed Olympics coverage in this country,” says Dark. The consortium set a high bar that CBC wants to keep high for Canadian viewers. “Those folks whose niece or nephew is performing at three o’clock in the morning in some downhill event, we want to make sure that Canadians have access to that.”

But what about CBC’s Eastern primetime show during Sochi? The time difference (12 hours for the West Coast) means there won’t be any live sports happening at that point, so Dark says it will be a recap of the day’s events that also highlights the stories of Canadian athletes and their successes.

It’s a similar content strategy to one NBC used—and Dark says CBC liked—with its primetime show during the London Games. Even though NBC faced fierce Twitter backlash in the form of #NBCFail because it waited until primetime to broadcast marquee events via tape delay, the ratings were remarkable. Nielsen numbers show more than 219 million Americans watched the Games on NBC and its sister networks.

If that primetime show is engaging and entertaining, says Dark, viewers will watch even if they know that, say, a Canadian skier won a gold at four o’clock in the morning. “Not only are you going to want to see her win, you’re going to want to see the background story behind it,” he says. That could include everything from talking with the athlete’s proud family to seeing the flag being raised and the tears and joy that come with those moments.

“Our strategy here is live will always be first, but we will also take advantage of that primetime produced, packaged show,” says Dark. While some of NBC’s live coverage was only available online, Dark says CBC will cover basically every event live from a broadcast perspective. To that end, CBC recently completed license agreements with TSN, Sportsnet and RDS to broadcast some events.

CBC would also be wise to follow the consortium and NBC’s long-lead strategy to make the public care about the athletes leading up to the Games, says Russell Reimer, president of Calgary-based Manifesto Sport Management.

“The Olympics have become a storytelling medium,” says Reimer, who worked as a content producer for NBC at the 2000 and 2002 Olympics. “Vancouver 2010 did something very special to this country.” The consortium put a lot of resources into building stories around compelling characters. “Then people watched and knew who Jon Montgomery, Alex Bilodeau and Sidney Crosby were,” he says. It’s critical, he adds, for CBC to rekindle that excitement and borrow the Olympic equity from 2010 to transfer towards Sochi. “Narrative structure really builds audiences.” For its part, CBC has started running “Road to the Olympics” profiles as part of its primetime news broadcasts and launched a website that features news and coverage on Canadian athletes to watch.

Judy Davey, executive vice-president of activation at ZenithOptimedia Canada, offers one more important lesson CBC can learn from the consortium: “Being friendly with advertisers is a good thing.” While she says CBC has historically excelled in Olympic program content and quality, “they were less focused on advertisers.”

Dark says his team has been meeting first with IOC, then Canadian Olympic Committee partners to negotiate deals. Talks with those roughly 20 groups started in November. Those partners have between 45 and 60 days during which they can negotiate with the CBC exclusively around their specific categories. If an agreement isn’t made once the time is up, the broadcaster can reach out to other companies within the category.

While the CBC is obviously well into Olympics mode internally and with potential partners, not all Canadians are yet. A CBC.ca story titled “Sochi Olympics 1 year away” published on Feb. 7 included information about venues and the top Canadian medal contenders. One commenter wrote “Must we really have the Olympics forced down our throats for the next 12 months?” Another was even more succinct: “A year away? I don’t care.” The big question is, will the CBC convince them to care over the next year? Advertisers will be counting on it.

For more insight on Canada’s media industry, subscribe to Marketing.