NBC Touts Silver Lining In Historically Low Viewership For Tokyo Olympics

NBC Touts Silver Lining In Historically Low Viewership For Tokyo Olympics

9:40pm Aug 09, 2021
Members of the U.S. team pose for NBC cameras during the closing ceremony on Sunday.
Members of the U.S. team pose for NBC cameras during the closing ceremony on Sunday.
Leon Neal / Getty Images
  • Members of the U.S. team pose for NBC cameras during the closing ceremony on Sunday.

    Members of the U.S. team pose for NBC cameras during the closing ceremony on Sunday.

    Leon Neal / Getty Images

  • The audience for streaming the Tokyo Olympics was strong but overall the ratings were down from the Rio Games.

    The audience for streaming the Tokyo Olympics was strong but overall the ratings were down from the Rio Games.

    David J. Phillip / AP

Like so many things connected to this year's often-troubled Tokyo Olympic Games, NBCUniversal's final viewership figures for its TV and streaming coverage have a definite good news/bad news quality.

The good news trumpeted by NBC: Their 17 nights of prime time coverage on the broadcast network ranked just behind Sunday Night Football as the second most-watched show of the 2020-21 TV season. Viewers streamed a record 5.5 billion minutes of events across social media and online platforms like NBCOlympics.com, the NBC Sports app and the streaming service Peacock. Those figures make the Tokyo Games the most-streamed Olympics ever, giving Peacock its best two weeks of usage since it debuted in April 2020.

But there's also bad news. The average prime time viewership each night across all its platforms – online, cable and network — was just 15.5 million people, down from an average 26.7 million viewers for the Rio Games in 2016 – a 42% plunge. Similarly, just 150 million Americans watched the games, compared to 198 million who saw the events in Rio.

Figures show the uptick in viewing online doesn't match the loss in audience on more traditional outlets like cable TV and the broadcast network. Though it does mirror the overall ratings drop for broadcast and cable TV in general over the past five years.

Still NBC insists in its press materials that the Tokyo Olympics was the largest media event in history. That's largely due to the amount of material NBCUniversal presented across its assorted platforms – a record 7,000 hours of coverage across the broadcast network, cable channels like USA and Telemundo Deportes, and online.

"No single property has a greater positive effect on our company," says Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBCUniversal television and streaming, in a statement. "Our Olympic presentation has provided unmatched promotion."

Historic Amount of Coverage Leads to Confusion

But critics complained the company didn't do a great job helping viewers sort through the sometimes-overwhelming amounts of coverage, especially regarding live events. The streaming service Peacock, in particular, took a lot of barbs for a confusing design and coverage of men's basketball which was placed behind a paywall.

And one of the most attention-getting elements of NBC's coverage — an irreverent, sometimes-profane stream of commentary on Olympics highlights offered by comic Kevin Hart and rapper Snoop Dogg – was also based on Peacock, where the wider audience likely didn't see it. (Be warned: the YouTube clip linked above does not bleep the salty language.)

NBC was already facing an uphill battle, negotiating a 13-hour time difference which ensured many sports fans would already know the outcome of key contests before they were shown in prime time on the network. Several competitors NBC had hyped for months leading into the games, from tennis star Naomi Osaka to gymnastics legend Simone Biles and the U.S. women's soccer team, struggled in competition.

And there was the biggest challenge: presenting the games during a pandemic. Besides the decision to ban most spectators and some athletes dropping out after positive COVID tests, the world's ongoing struggles with the coronavirus dampened an event which could have been a triumphant showcase of the globe's emergence from lockdown.

Instead, the Olympics too often felt burdened by the long shadow of the coronavirus threat, from finding camera angles which didn't emphasize the rows of empty stands to providing footage of family and friends celebrating star athletes' accomplishments from their stateside hometowns instead of in Tokyo.

NBC says its coverage of the games boosted everything from podcasts to broadcast programs like the Today show and NBC Nightly News.

But the days when the Olympics were appointment television for most TV viewers seems to be ending. The pressing question for NBC — which has spent billions for rights to air the games until at least 2032 – is how to handle a media world where the hours of coverage are increasing while audience numbers are heading in the opposite direction.

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