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Streaming video is NBC's fountain of youth at the Winter Olympics

Streaming video is NBC's fountain of youth at the Winter Olympics
U.S. snowboarder Shaun White celebrates his gold medal victory Thursday at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. NBC offered live video of his victory on Snapchat, the social media app. (Andreas Rentz / Getty Images)

On Tuesday evening, 27-year-old Cosette Chaput hoped to get home from a late meeting at the Westwood office of the marketing agency where she works to see Olympic snowboarder Shaun White compete the halfpipe competition for his third gold medal.

With traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard moving at a crawl, the Beverly Hills resident wasn't going to make it to her TV in time. No problem. When White was ready to compete, she received an alert on her phone from the social media app Snapchat, which offered a live video stream of NBC's coverage of his win.

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"I was able to open up the Snap app and watch, along with my Uber driver, a little piece of Olympics history," Chaput said.

Chaput describes herself as an Olympics fanatic – she's attended the event twice, and one of her work clients is the committee to bring the 2028 Games to Los Angeles. She also represents the younger generation of Olympic viewers who are being courted by NBC, which is making content from the Games more widely available through digital streaming.

The streamed feed of White that Chaput watched on Snapchat ran only a few minutes on the social media platform's live video channel. But it was part of a landmark moment as the 2018 Winter Games marks the first time NBC is offering live streaming coverage on a platform other than its own apps.

Broadcast and cable television are still the main destinations for Olympic audiences. The vast majority of the $900 million advertisers are spending to reach viewers watching the Games is going to commercials that air on NBC and its cable networks. While the average prime-time audience of around 23 million is down 6% from 2014, reflecting the overall downward trend of broadcast and cable TV viewing, the figure towers over the rest of the TV competition over 18 nights.

NBC, which has $12 billion invested in the TV, mobile and internet streaming rights to the Games through 2032, needs younger people who spend less time watching traditional TV to develop an Olympics viewing habit. The company is aware that each year a growing share of the audience is getting their video fix on smart phones, tablets and internet-connected streaming devices such as Amazon Fire and Roku.

NBC has been streaming coverage of every Olympic event since the 2012 Summer Games in London and has seen significant growth in the online audience every two years. The network said that through the first six days of Pyeongchang, people have streamed 445 million minutes of Olympics — more than the total for the entire 18 days of the Sochi Games in 2014. Streaming viewers can watch continuous live coverage only through NBC's apps and need to have a cable or satellite subscription.

"People are more comfortable than ever consuming digital content," Rick Cordella, executive vice president and general manager from NBC Sports, said in a telephone interview from Pyeongchang. "The technology is better. The apps are better."

The viewers who stream are far younger than the TV audience for the Olympics. NBC said 76% of the online viewers for Pyeongchang are between the ages of 18 to 49, up from 61% for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio. The median age for TV viewers watching the Summer Games in Rio was 52.

This year, NBC is streaming live coverage in prime time when the most viewers are available to watch at home — something not possible in previous Olympics due to time zone differences that required events to be recorded earlier in the day. For the first time, the streaming numbers are being included in the network's total audience figures in prime time, along with coverage on its cable channel NBC Sports Network, and are counted in most of its deals with advertisers.

The digital audience can be significant. White's historic performance was watched by 28.2 million viewers on NBC and NBCN while 445,000 simultaneously streamed it on an internet device.

White's gold medal win was available to Snapchat users as part of NBC's Olympic content deal with the network. Snapchat provides stories, clips, short-form programs and Olympic highlights for its audience and splits the ad revenue generated with NBC. (NBCUniversal also has a financial stake in Snapchat parent Snap Inc.)

NBC began its Olympics partnership with Snapchat during the 2016 Summer Games in an effort to tap into the Venice-based company's youthful users. Snapchat's Olympics-related content was watched by 35 million people, 90% of whom were younger than 35.

"We looked at that and thought 'let's expose this audience to NBC's broadcast coverage and let's use a great moment each day,' " NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel said in a telephone interview from Pyeongchang.

Snapchat's Olympic content has already reached 35 million unique users through just seven days at Pyeongchang, which will surpass the total for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.

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"It's a really young audience and obviously an audience that's hard to reach on television," said Ben Schwerin, vice president of partnerships for Snapchat. "What that proves is that young people are as passionate and interested in the Olympics as they've always been. They are just consuming content on more platforms."

Schwerin said the live Snapchat video is complementary to NBC's coverage.

"It's a great way to experience a moment that really matters," he said.

Snapchat is also getting plenty of behind-the-scenes video from Olympic athletes at no cost, as many of them use the platform to communicate with friends and fans.

Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis, said accommodating younger viewers with streaming options is a necessity with an event as varied as the Winter Olympics.

"It really is a byproduct of having such a cross-section of demographics engaged in these different sports," Rishe said. "The younger audience is watching snowboarding and extreme sports on their phones and their iPads."

But Rishe sees the growth of streaming as a sea change in video consumption. He does not see the streaming audience turning into TV viewers once they mature.

"Once you get in the habit of streaming your highlights and events, why would you break that habit?" he said. "It's part of the technological revolution."

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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