NBC — which has broadcast every Olympics since 2000 and will do so until at least 2032 — knew it faced a strong headwind heading into those games. The 1 p.m. time zone difference between Beijing and the eastern United States meant that most events would be up to half a day long when they aired in prime time. Another competition so close to the pandemic-delayed Summer Games in Tokyo in July could tire Olympics viewers. And some worried that public health restrictions could undermine some of the color of TV shows.
There is also the shadow cast over the host country, China, given its record of human rights abuses, its threats to invade Taiwan, and its lack of cooperation in international efforts to investigate the origins of the coronavirus. Even some Olympians participate in boycott campaigns.
And yet, somehow, with everything going against them and expectations at rock bottom, Olympic broadcasts have always managed to underperform so far.
Friday’s opening ceremonies set the dark tone, attracting 15.7 million viewers. It was the lowest figure on record and a 44% drop since the start of the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. On average, 12.7 million people tuned in each day during the first four days of TV coverage, down nearly 50% from 2018.
Ratings for nearly every type of television program have fallen in recent years, but few have slipped further, faster, and from such towering heights as the Olympics. NBC lost almost half of the viewers who watched opening night just eight years ago. Once a towering TV event, the games now just look…popular. By comparison, the drama series “NCIS” 12.6 million viewers on average every week last season.
The decline in television viewership continues a downward trend that began even before 2014 – the year NBC’s parent company, Comcast Corp., paid the IOC $7.75 billion for the rights to broadcast of all the Olympic Games from 2022 to 2032.
But television is only part of the story.
While media coverage has focused on distressed television ratings, NBC has quietly built a broad following of the Olympics online by streaming clips, interviews and highlights on TikTok, YouTube, Facebook , Instagram, Twitter and other digital platforms. The Olympics also helped boost its Peacock streaming service, which now has 9 million paying accounts.
NBC hasn’t disclosed how many digital viewers it has, in part because it hasn’t been able to track all the clicks on its Olympics content, especially on social media. But the online audience is “huge, growing and additive” to the number of viewers on a TV, said Mark Lazaruspresident of television and streaming at NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC.
Despite disappointing TV viewership, digital viewing behavior suggests the Olympics may be more popular than ever, said Michel Socolow, media historian at the University of Maine and author of a book about the Olympics and dissemination.
“Given that Olympic videos on YouTube and TikTok will rack up hundreds of millions of views, I wouldn’t be surprised if these Olympics end up being one of the most-watched video events in US history.” , did he declare. Combined with widespread interest in China, Socolow added, the Beijing Games could become the most-watched video program in world history.
Eventually, he expects the digital audience that NBC is accumulating to exceed its traditional TV audience for the Games – a historic change for an event that draws its inspiration from ancient Greece, but has acquired much of its appeal. world through the power of television in the 20th century. .
As such, he says, the Olympics are evolving from a heavily produced sports-entertainment show watched by mass audiences every night into one made up of hundreds of short, stand-alone pieces – a race, a routine, a ceremony award ceremony – that people watch every time they choose.
Socolow points to videos posted by NBC on its YouTube channel of figure skaters Nathan Chen from the United States and Kamila Valieva from Russia. A video of Chen’s short program accumulated 2.5 million views in one day; another with Valieva’s unprecedented quad jump was viewed more than 2 million times in 48 hours. NBC released dozens of similar clips, all produced at little extra cost to the network — and all attached to commercials, adding to NBC’s return on investment.
NBC’s Olympic viewership is of vital importance to the IOC, given the importance of the network’s investment to the financial health of the competition. NBC’s rights payments represent approximately 40% of the IOC’s total revenue, according to an estimate. The IOC, in turn, redistributes some of this money to National Olympic Committees, providing a broad financial basis for the Games.
The network’s money is so big that the IOC over the years has moved various Olympic finals to odd hours in the host country so that NBC can broadcast the event live in prime time in the United States.
No one knows how the shift from a live television audience to an ad hoc digital audience will affect the overall economy of the Olympics. But declining ratings pose no immediate threat to the IOC because NBC’s current contract spans another decade, said Heather L. Dichter, associate professor of sports management at De Montfort University in Great Britain. But the next rights deal — likely to take place after the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Games — might not prove as lucrative if the trend continues, she said.
In the meantime, Olympic television viewership is not only shrinking, but also aging, Dichter said, urging the IOC to add more X-Games-style events to attract younger viewers, such as snowboarding and sky skiing in the winter and surfing and climbing in the summer.
Sobering early ratings in China suggest that NBC and other Olympic broadcasters around the world should seek new digital outlets for Olympic content “as soon as possible”, she added.
But NBCUniversal executive Lazarus doesn’t seem too concerned. The Tokyo Olympics last summer brought profits to his business, despite many of the same obstacles as this year: lower grades, the pandemic, an Asian time zone. The Beijing Games, he suggested, will likely go the same way.
“The delivery system changes, not what people consume,” Lazarus said. “The only question is what format and what length [viewers] to want? … We can show them what they want to see in different ways.