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Olympic (research) memories

Olympics on NBC logoThe advent of another Olympics always recalls memories of past research work in support of NBC and their Olympic coverage. The most salient memory: trying to fax (yes, it was pre-email, pre-internet days) well over 200 pages a day of research data to our NBC research contact on the ground at the Olympic site. Needless to say, there was much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.

Let’s go to the way-back machine

But let’s take a step back for a moment. The company I worked for, Statistical Research, Inc. (or SRI), had been involved in Olympic research for NBC since they first acquired rights for the 1988 Games in Seoul. Although I was not involved at the time (I was still in my first career as an aerospace engineer – but that’s another story), SRI worked with NBC for years to help develop the NBC Olympic format. This format was tremendously successful in building the audience for the Olympics from fans of niche sports to a broad-based audience that would dominate primetime.

The genesis of this format was addressed in a notable article, Inside-Out Olympics in The New Yorker magazine at the time of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. While often assailed – every time I mentioned I worked on the Olympics, I had to field comments about why this or that sport wasn’t covered – the format, in those days of limited media options, was what NBC had to do to make the Olympics work as a business. As I said to people, NBC’s job is to maximize the audience for the Olympics, not to give the smaller or odder sports the same level of exposure as the major ones. And the “up close and personal” segments, while cloying, were important factors in attracting and maintaining the female audience.

Faxes and dot-matrix printouts

But I digress from my experience back in the pre-internet days. While we did a lot of studies before and after the Games, the most intense study was our “overnight” survey. We at SRI (and later after being acquired by Knowledge Networks) would do daily telephone surveys for NBC on Olympic coverage. This then got turned around ASAP so we could use that darn fax machine to get data to our NBC partner – ideally, NBC would receive first thing Wednesday morning the data from our surveys done all day Tuesday about Monday’s Olympic viewing.

This required the entire company being on a “war footing” for the Olympics. Our call center (yes, we had our own) knew that any other work would be a secondary priority during the Olympics. Our stats, data processing, and coding people worked around the clock as needed to get the data out. And within our client service group, we had to distill the data into topline reports to fax along with the banner tabulations.

According to our NBC partner, these data transmissions were very valuable to the Olympics effort. While most of the Olympic schedule was set, there was some ability to tweak coverage. Although this was not often shared with us, I do recall one adjustment that was made. During the medal ceremonies at one Olympics, NBC would often only show the Americans getting their medals but none of the other medalists – you could see the American get a bronze but not the gold or silver medals. Feedback from viewers was clear they thought every medalist should be shown – and NBC tweaked their coverage to do that.

Later years became a little easier in terms of transmitting data – email is a great thing! – and in fielding overnight surveys as we transitioned to using the online (but still representative) KnowledgePanel. But there was still a lot of manual effort needed to get the data and reports out to our NBC partners on time and correct.

Helping out 100 million?

My wife works for a pharmaceutical company and helps get literally life-saving drugs to market. In comparison, I sometimes feel a bit less significant working on TV and media. But I could always point to the work on the Olympics and say, “hey, you may save lives but I just helped 100 million people enjoy the Olympics a little bit more last night!”. It was a lot of work but also very rewarding.

David Tice is the principal of TiceVision LLC, a media research consultancy.
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