Declining ratings show the way for future TV viewing


Have you been watching the Olympics? If so, you’re part of a much smaller community than in Games past. Ratings for the Tokyo Games are down significantly from Rio 2016, London 2012 and prior Games — like, losing-half-the-audience significantly.

NBC’s overall TV audience for the Tokyo Games is down an average of about 45 percent from the comparable Rio Games in 2016. Prime-time viewership — which consists of both live and delayed events — is down by 51 percent.

Individual days are even worse, with last Saturday’s audience of 14.9 million ranking as the lowest ever recorded for a Summer Olympics, breaking the record of … the previous Wednesday.

So this is terrible news for NBC, right? Well … yes and no.

First, here’s how ratings affect you. Ratings allow NBC to set advertising rates, and in turn receive sponsor revenue to offset the billions NBC pays to the IOC for the right to broadcast the Games. (That total: $7.75 billion from now through 2032.) Lower ratings mean NBC must charge sponsors less, but since the IOC doesn’t give discounts based on lower ratings, NBC must make up that revenue shortfall. Guess where that’s going to come from?

Spoiler: you.

Lower ratings won’t cancel the Olympics the way they might a marginally popular TV drama. The Olympics aren’t going anywhere. But if you want to see the Games in all their full glory in the future, plan on ponying up $4.99 or more a month for streaming services.

“This may be the beginning of the end of television as a mass medium,” says Jay Rosenstein, a former VP of programming at CBS Sports, who was involved with CBS’s coverage of the Winter Games from 1992 to 1998. “There’s so much fractionalization, so much (coverage) available on TikTok, YouTube, all the NBC digital spaces, that we’re being conditioned as a culture and as a nation that the highlight form is perfectly acceptable. Longform viewing of TV, especially when you have a hodgepodge of events like the Olympics, is becoming a thing of the past.”

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Any serious ratings discussion has to proceed from a baseline understanding that audiences are down for every form of TV entertainment across the board — sports, reality TV, scripted TV, post-election news, all of it. And against that truth, the Olympics still claim the largest slice of a smaller pie. NBC noted in a recent press release that this past Thursday’s Olympic evening broadcast was the 132nd consecutive Olympics night to win that day’s primetime. With an overall audience average of about 16.8 million viewers, the Olympics are on pace to join NBC’s Sunday Night Football as the two most popular TV programs of the season.

Wins are wins, right? For instance, the Thursday night Olympics coverage nearly doubled the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game on Fox, which averaged 7.3 million viewers. Any time you beat NFL football, no matter what the circumstance, that’s a strong showing. 

That said, you’d have to spin harder and faster than an Olympic gymnast to call the ratings decline good news. For instance, yes, the Olympics beat NFL football by six million viewers on Thursday. But as Sports Media Watch notes, the last time the two went head-to-head, in 2012, the Olympics won the night by 29 million viewers. 

How did things turn so far south for NBC? Let’s count the ways.

UNIVERSAL CITY, CALIFORNIA – JULY 03: NBC Olympics launches “Rings Across America” Tour life-size set of iconic Olympic Rings at Universal Studios Hollywood on July 03, 2021 in Universal City, California. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Fractured audiences

If the Olympics were the only property floundering, there’d be reason to wonder exactly what’s going on. But here’s the baseline truth: virtually every form of TV entertainment is down from pre-pandemic levels. Some of that’s the fact that we’re just exhausted from a year and a half of lockdowns, masks and dread, but a far larger reason for the across-the-board decline is that there are so many more entertainment options across that same board.

Consider, for instance: the last time the Olympics took place, Disney+ didn’t even exist … and if you’re like tens of millions of other Americans, that’s an essential element of your household entertainment now. Other streaming services, games, social media and countless other distractions … the chances for the entire world to come together to watch one single event are dwindling fast.

What’s happening to live sports TV is exactly what’s already happened to the music industry, print media and network TV: with so many options available, every consumer is able to create their own personal network, rather than relying on traditional providers. Why wait two hours to watch a 100m race when you can knock it out in 10 seconds immediately on Twitter?

The pandemic

This is the gargantuan asterisk that shadows literally every human endeavor from March 2020 until right now. This Olympics began under a question that no other Games have faced in nearly a century: whether to even take place at all. Significant percentages of both Americans and worldwide viewers didn’t want the Games to go on under a pandemic, and it’s likely that many of those simply declined to watch once the torch was lit.

There’s also crucial atmosphere missing from these events. Watching a gymnastics final or a soccer match without a cheering crowd is like watching a practice, lifeless and lacking energy. Not only that, the heavy restrictions on press movement within Tokyo rob viewers of an opportunity to learn more about the host nation and connect more with Japan. In the absence of that kind of color, we get … conversation. So, so much conversation.

The rise of streaming

If you had trouble navigating NBC’s Peacock app and the array of streaming options available to you, first off, you’re not alone. Second, there’s bad news.

NBC’s touting its strong streaming numbers, and with good reason: streaming is the future of telecast entertainment. Theoretically, that means you’ll have access to whatever you want to watch, anywhere you’ve got cell service. In practical terms, you’ll need to subscribe to multiple different services and remember multiple passwords.

NBC is already working in this direction; the first Notre Dame football game of the season, one of NBC’s marquee priorities, will air exclusively on Peacock later this fall. If you’re not already subscribed, you will be, or you’ll miss out.

We’re still in the growing-pains phase of the move to streaming, and the pain was evident in this year’s Olympics. Navigating a complex Olympics schedule with a dozen channel options across broadcast and streaming is a daily challenge, and the frustration of having to download and subscribe to a new streaming service surely contributed to a decline in numbers. Every barrier placed between fans and games means a percentage of the audience drops off, and this year’s Olympics had plenty of such barriers.

Time zone displacement

Sports continue to be valuable properties primarily because they’re live and in the moment, an experience that can’t be replicated watching several days later. There’s something irreplaceable about having an experience that’s happening in real time, where you don’t already know the outcome. But to get that experience with this year’s Olympics, you’ll need to stay up past midnight or get up before the dawn. Dedicated NBA or soccer fans will watch midnight tipoffs or 4 a.m. kickoffs, but casual fans won’t — and casual fans are the ones who show up in those vast numbers.

Because of Japan’s 13-hour time difference with the East Coast, events broadcast in prime time in the United States happened more than half a day ago in Japan. In the case of major news events — Simone Biles withdrawing from gymnastics events, for example — most of America already knows the outcome of the event before it even happens.

Bad news for NBC and viewers: this won’t get any better anytime soon. The next Games are slated for Beijing, China in 2022, the third straight Olympics contested in an Asian market.

“Beijing is a challenge, but you could have skiing in the morning so it would be in prime time here,” Rosenstein says. “Paris is six hours ahead, so you’ll wind up with no event in prime time. Everything will be in the afternoon on American TV; you can’t have competitions at 2 in the morning for 8 (p.m.) back east. NBC might just have to hold on until you get to L.A. (in 2028).”

Star power, or the lack thereof

It’s a sad truth about the Olympics that while the focus should be on the nation rather than the individual, it’s the individual who draws the nation’s interest. This year’s Games had little star power relative to past Games — no Michael Phelps, no Usain Bolt, no Fab Five, not even a LeBron James. Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky are among the finest American athletes of all time, but they can’t carry the Games by themselves.

Some of this is outside NBC’s power — the network can’t control which athletes will make the Games, or which athletes will compete — but some of it is. Given that the Olympics tend to be one of the most popular sporting events with women, who tend — speaking in very broad and general terms here — to focus more on the story than the result, NBC might in fact be better off running more features and heartwarming stories on its main broadcast channel, to build up that connection, and save the non-medal heats for streaming channels.

The impact of politics

As with literally every other public element of modern American society, there’s a political dimension to the Olympics — more specifically, there’s a uniquely 21st-century toxic us-vs.-them confrontational aspect. Some athletes and their allies want to use the Olympics as an opportunity to spread their own individual message; critics want the Olympics to remain — outwardly, at least — a politics- and statement-free zone.

The degree to which political holdouts affect ratings is debatable, but if personal politics are important to an individual, they tend to be very important. Someone unhappy with, say, Megan Rapinoe for speaking her mind on the state of America will avoid any coverage of Rapinoe whatsoever going forward, even if there’s zero political dimension to, or connection with, the current performance.

So have political views, either those of the athletes or those of the viewers, impacted ratings? “It’s a hard question to answer without significant focus group studies,” Rosenstein says, “but my gut tells me no. Americans want to see gold medal winners. Athletes like the women’s soccer team may be polarizing, but [protests are] a small part of the Olympic coverage.”

NBC is looking to find scraps of good ratings news from this Olympics, and they’re out there. For instance, Simone Biles’ return to the balance beam boosted ratings that traditionally decline over the course of the Games. That Tuesday marked the first time there had been more primetime viewers on the second Tuesday of the Olympics than the opening Tuesday since 1988. And if that sounds like NBC is slicing that bread very thin indeed, well, they’re working with what they’ve got.

On the streaming front, NBC proudly touted that American viewers have totaled more than 100 billion minutes of Olympic viewing as of Wednesday, a figure that averages out to more than five hours for every single American in the country.

That right there is the future of Olympic coverage: wide-appeal broadcasts supplemented by niche sports on streaming services. The days of the entire world gathering around the TV and watching Carl Lewis or the Fab Five or Michael Phelps are gone, and they’re not coming back. We’re in the midst of that monumental transition now, and like all foundational upheavals, it’ll be disorganized until it sorts out … probably when the Olympics return to American soil in 2028.

Empty seats are seen as the Olympic Flame burns after the lighting of the Olympic Cauldron during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, at the Olympic Stadium, in Tokyo, on July 23, 2021. (Photo by Franck FIFE / AFP) (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at [email protected]

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