NBC closely studies how Americans follow the action partly because the Olympics are a huge investment, but also to get a peek at how media habits are changing. This year's takeaway: the multiscreen experience is rapidly taking hold and is doing so across all age groups.
"It's not 25-year-olds who wear black and live in Williamsburg," said Alan Wurtzel, NBC's chief researcher. "This is America."
NBC and its cable networks televised 541 hours of Sochi action and made all Olympic competition available online. The flood of material only increased the appetite; NBC said 49 per cent of viewers said they watched more Olympics action simply because it was more available, and that number shot to nearly two-thirds among viewers aged 18 to 34.
The ability to find out results or even see live competition before events were shown on a tape-delayed basis on NBC in prime time didn't hurt viewership. NBC had its second-biggest prime-time audience the night it showed American ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White win gold, even though that performance was shown live online and on cable earlier in the day.
In fact, NBC said people who watched live Olympics action on cable were 43 per cent more likely to watch NBC's taped prime-time show. NBC's ratings were up slightly over Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2010 despite a time difference that allowed for no live competition in prime time and arguably a poorer performance by American athletes.
Only 9 per cent of Americans reported owning smartphones during the 2008 Beijing summer Olympics, compared with 60 per cent during Sochi, NBC said. Although Olympic fans of all ages used these devices to follow the games, it was dramatically more so among the young, many of whom followed the Olympics more on their phones than they did on TV.
That's a concern for NBC. Television networks still have no reliable way of measuring — and monetizing — viewing of video on smartphones, and that represents a lot of potentially lost revenue if smartphones become the viewing habit of choice for many in a new generation.
Wurtzel also said he was surprised that social media use surrounding the Olympics was not more widespread. An estimated 3 million people said they sent at least one Olympic-related message on Twitter during the 17-day event, a relatively small number considering NBC averaged more than 21 million viewers each night in prime time.
"Before the Olympics I thought I'd say this was the first social media Olympics," Wurtzel said. "The reality is, it's not a game-changer yet."
David Bauder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder