Leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, a group of NBC executives held a news conference to talk about their approach to these unusual Games.
The message was hope, as it is for every Olympics, but NBC also wanted these Games to mark the symbolic end of the global pandemic — a return to everyday life and a celebration of the triumph of the human spirit after a difficult 18 months. The sales pitch, from NBC’s perspective, made sense: the network is paying around about $12 billion to televise 10 Olympic Games from 2014 through 2032. But the network’s narrative was also running headlong into a state of emergency in Japan due to rising coronavirus cases and opposition to the Games on the ground there. When it was announced that there would be no fans, the television presentation suddenly became more challenging, too.
Indeed, the Games so far suggest that NBC overestimated America’s appetite for the Games and their pomp. Viewership is down significantly; public polling shows Americans are not enthusiastic about these Olympics; and the plight of Olympians and their mental health struggles have become the dominant story lines after Simone Biles withdrew from the gymnastics competition.
“We’ve had some bad luck,” NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell said during an earnings call with investors this week in which he admitted that the linear TV ratings were lower than the network expected.
According to Nielsen, the opening ceremony in Tokyo drew 16.7 million viewers on NBC on July 23, accounting for both the live morning broadcast and the replay in prime time — the smallest audience for an opening ceremony in the past 33 years. It was down from 26.5 million who watched the event in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and 40.7 million people who watched London’s ceremony.
Through the first four nights of the Games, according to Sportico, viewership of NBCUniversal’s Olympics coverage, across its networks, is down 43 percent compared with Rio de Janeiro, to 17.5 million viewers from 30.7 million. Primetime coverage on the NBC is down nearly 50 percent.
Any viewership numbers must take into account that the number of homes with cable TV or satellite subscriptions has fallen significantly since 2016, from 86 million to 77 million. There is also the splintering of TV audiences with access to so much on-demand entertainment, as well as the time difference with Tokyo which puts many events on tape delay during prime time. And NBC is showing events on its streaming service, Peacock.
“You’ve got the normal head winds from an Olympics on that side of the world,” said former Fox executive and industry consultant Patrick Crakes. “It’s a year delayed and it feels in some ways like we’re getting this out of the way because we have to.”
The positive news, Shell said on the call, is that Peacock has delivered its largest audiences in its short life span during the Olympics. Additionally, NBC says the first five nights of the Games delivered five of the top 17 prime time audiences of the year on linear TV.
Shell said the Games will still be profitable for NBC due in part to Peacock, though he did not cite exact figures. The Rio Games made NBCUniversal $250 million, the company has said.
Still, NBC has been negotiating with advertisers, offering them make up ad inventory on its digital broadcasts to allow them to reach more viewers. NBC may potentially offer some companies spots on Sunday Night Football this fall, as well, to make up for the shortfalls in Olympic viewership.
The low ratings reflect, at least in part, a general lack of enthusiasm for the Games among Americans. According to a Monmouth Poll released this week, only 16 percent of Americans have a lot of interest in this year’s Olympic Games. Forty-three percent have a little interest, while 41 percent have no interest at all. Nearly 10 percent of poll respondents said they had not heard about the Games taking place in Tokyo this month.
That antipathy, and some of the viewership tallies, mirrors the struggles that many sports endured during the pandemic. Fanless broadcasts have stripped them of some of their emotional texture and scrambled calendars have made them harder to promote.
“There definitely is a lack of energy around a live event like the Olympics,” said Chris Bevilacqua, a founder of Bevilacqua Helvant Ventures, a New York-based sports and media consulting firm. "Like we saw last year with covid in pro and college sports, viewership was down across the board. With a live event and the excitement around it, the live audience really does matter.”
There have been some classic Olympic moments this week, from Sunisa Lee winning Gold in gymnastics to Alaskan swimmer Lydia Jacobs earning a surprise Gold in the 100-meter breaststroke. But there has also been a disconnect between the story NBC has wanted to tell and the realities of these Games that began with the Opening Ceremonies. After tennis star Naomi Osaka lit the flame, NBC host Savannah Guthrie gushed.
“I had chills when that cauldron was lit,” she said. “It was supposed to represent the rising sun but then it just burst open like a flower and it just seemed like everything was blossoming with possibility.”
Journalists, meanwhile, were live-tweeting the protests that could be heard outside the stadium because of a lack of fans.
When Simone Biles withdrew from the competition, citing her mental health, NBC had to pivot away from the traditional narratives of triumph and overcoming adversity to the more somber subject of athletes speaking frankly about their struggles and the pressures they deal with.
During one segment, “Today Show” host Craig Melvin asked Laurie Hernandez, a former Biles teammate, “Is there something that we, collectively as a society, that we don’t understand about the plight of Olympic athletes in the United States of America?”
Hernandez answered emphatically: “I’m glad to be asked that question. I do think that there is a thin layer of disconnect between Olympic athletes and kind of those who just don’t play sports … When we have off days it feels awful. It feels like we’re letting a lot of people down.”