NBC’s Winter Olympics Coverage from the last two weeks drew the smallest TV audience since the network took over the rights, dropping more than 40% since the PyeongChang Games.
Data released Monday showed an average total audience of 11.4 million viewers, which is about a 40% drop from the 19.8 million viewers during the 2018 Games, which in turn were lower than the 21.3 million viewers for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games.
“This was probably the most difficult Olympics of all time,” NBC Sports Chairman Pete Bevacqua told The Wall Street Journal. “We had 1,600 people in Stamford and 600 people in Beijing,” Bevacqua said, referring to the size of the network’s crew in Connecticut. “Normally that would be flipped for us.”
Bevacqua pointed to the strict COVID-19 protocols in Beijing that limited both media access and spectators and families in the stands.
Bevacqua says that advertisers were given additional airtime in order to make up for the lost eyeballs with lower ratings.
Even a boost from the Super Bowl, which NBC televised this year on the middle weekend of the Olympics, couldn’t prop up falling numbers – with NBC having to negotiate a trade in years with CBS to make sure they had both.
NBC did tout the massive digital audience for the Games, saying that people watched 4.3 billion minutes of the Winter Olympics across digital and social media channels over 18 days. Only last summer’s Olympics in Tokyo, 5.6 billion minutes, did better.
It’s hard to tell what exactly this all means for the network that has televised the Games in the United States since they took over tom ABC in 1988. They outbid both Fox and ESPN/ABC for the rights to host the Games from 2022 through 2032 for $7.75 billion, but have now seen ratings on television drop in each of the last two events: more than 40% down in Tokyo as well.
But is the digital platform enough to make up for that? Only NBC will know for sure, at least until their next public accounting disclosures.
The Winter Olympics were plagued by many of the same challenges as the Summer Games were in Tokyo. For two consecutive Games, the most-hyped American athlete has wound up underperforming expectations. In Tokyo, it was gymnast Simone Biles, who wound up pulling out of most of her events. In Bejing, it was skiier Mikaela Shiffrin who Did Not Finish three races and was outside of the top 8 in her other two events.
While there were a few misses, and a potentially-historic US medal haul didn’t come to fruition, the US still overall had a good performance in Beijing. Their 25 total medals (8 gold, 10 silver, 7 bronze) are 2 more than in Pyeong Chang. That’s as compared to Tokyo, where US medal counts were down in the form of 7 fewer golds between Rio and Tokyo.
There were also no NHL players participating in men’s hockey, which was a big blow to the marketability of those games as well, because NHL players as a group are the highest-profile Winter Olympians.
The controversies surrounding Beijing may have helped and may have hurt the Games. The ongoing narrative around 15-year old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, who tested positive for a banned substance in December but didn’t receive her results back until after the Games had begun, certainly brought a lot of attention and eyeballs to the Olympic sphere, but we don’t know how many of those actually watched the events, which included her finishing 4th in the women’s singles event.
There was also a significant anti-China narrative in the U.S. involving their treatment of Uyghur Muslim minorities in the country, among other domestic and international policies, that many Americans didn’t want to support.
These all fit into the broader narratives of a shift away from traditional cable and over-the-air television to digital and streaming services, as well as the continual time zone challenges for prime time viewers in the United States when the Games are hosted in Asia.
The Olympic Games are at a precipice and a shift where NBC, and the rest of the world, are going to have to reconsider their approach and presentation of the Games in almost every way. But that moment is coming at a valuable time for NBC, who with each Games will probably learn a little bit more about how to do this in the modern world as they barrel toward the Los Angeles 2028 Games that are expected to be the biggest cash cow in sports history.