NBC is using the Olympics as a "billion-dollar research lab" to get a sense of how people are using different media platforms to experience the Beijing Games that begin Aug. 8.
Besides giving advertisers a clearer picture of how much consumers are paying attention to the games, NBC hopes its research provides a comprehensive picture of how people are supplementing TV viewership with tools such as video streaming, video on demand and mobile phones, said Alan Wurtzel, the company's research chief. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft.)
"The billion-dollar lab is an extraordinary research opportunity," he said.
NBC has scheduled 3,600 hours of Olympics programming on its main network, along with Telemundo, USA, Oxygen, MSNBC, CNBC and Bravo. That's the equivalent of eight days of programming packed into each day.
In addition, the company is planning to make 2,200 hours of streaming video available on NBCOlympics.com. Consumers may also get video on demand via their computer and Olympics content through their mobile phones.
NBC relies on Nielsen Media Research for a count of how many people are watching the Olympics on their TVs at home, but there is no existing research tool that pulls together all the different types of exposure, Wurtzel said. With the help of outside companies and its own research staff, NBC is using about 10 methods for measuring the audience.
NBC has contracted with Quantcast Corp. to get a sense of who is using NBCOlympics.com. Besides video streaming, computer users are being offered reams of Olympics data, blogging of live events and gaming. NBC wants to know how many people will visit NBCOlympics.com, what pages they are viewing and how much time they are spending on the computer.
The information could be used on the fly to program the Web site. If one sport is doing particularly well with video on demand requests, NBCOlympics.com might feature it on its home page.
Same thing with mobile phone content: Will phone owners be interested in updates on events or in streaming video?
"I have no idea how people are going to use this stuff," Wurtzel said.
NBC will also be working with another company, Integrated Media Measurement Inc., that will distribute special cell phones to consumers. They will measure, through a signal included in Olympics audio, how much people are exposed to Olympics programming when they aren't at home.
NBC is conducting an online survey of 500 consumers each day, a total of 8,500 throughout the 17-day games, to ask detailed questions about how much they are using different media platforms. The company is also running different focus groups.
In an old media world, television companies didn't particularly want evidence that consumers were doing anything other than watching their content on television. That's not so anymore, Wurtzel said.
"The whole idea is to get the same person and to touch them across all different sorts of platforms," he said.
The information NBC gleans is not yet currency, meaning it won't be recognized in the advertising community to set prices for commercial time. Wurtzel concedes that some of the research efforts may not work in practice as they are designed.
But he's considering it a step toward producing what NBC calls a TAMI — Total Audience Measurement Index, which takes into account TV, online, video on demand and mobile phone usage. It may eventually be used for all programming going forward.