Why Have Olympic Primetime Ratings Taken a Hit in the U.S.?

The Closing Ceremony on Sunday, August 8th marked the end of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. A normally packed stadium was nearly empty due to covid guidelines and fewer athletes attended the event. Health and safety measures advised athletes and coaches to depart from the Olympic Village within 48 hours of the conclusion of their event.

The number of athletes was not the only figure to have dropped from 2016. Primetime coverage of the 2020 Olympics did not live up to NBC’s hopes. It was expected that the Games would be heavily watched after a year of anticipation due to the pandemic; however, the final primetime cable numbers did not reflect that assumption.

In 2016, an average of 29 million people turned on their televisions to follow their favorite athletes in Rio. This year, nearly half that number turned up. There was an average of 16.8 million viewers per night through the same day as the previous Olympic Games.

Total Audience for Primetime Programming:

  • 23 July (Fri): 8.2 million for the Opening Ceremony
  • 24 July (Sat): 15.3 million
  • 25 July (Sun): 19.2 million
  • 26 July (Mon): 16.8 million
  • 27 July (Tue): 16.2 million
  • 28 July (Wed): 15.0 million
  • 29 July (Thu): 19.5 million
  • 30 July (Fri): 15.2 million
  • 31 July (Sat): not reported
  • 01 Aug. (Sun): not reported
  • 02 Aug. (Mon): 15.8 million
  • 03 Aug: (Tue): 17.4 million
  • 04 Aug: (Wed): 14.6 million
  • 05 Aug: (Thu): 13.3 million
  • 06 Aug: (Fri): 12.5 million

There are multiple factors that could have caused a dip in ratings. SwimSwam previously reported that the rise of streaming services could play a part in the low cable ratings at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. NBC’s contract meant that they could stream the Olympics from the ten different channels, one of which was their new streaming service, Peacock.

Many people have ditched cable networks in favor of streaming services. The Peacock app saw a 96% increase in downloads in the month of July, though people quickly became frustrated when they discovered not all events would be streamed from one channel or platform. It became difficult to decipher which events would be played live and what channel they would need to tune into to watch.

Timezones also played a large role in American viewership. Prelims sessions began at 7:00 pm in Tokyo, which was 3:00 am PST and finals did not begin until 9:30 pm EST. This, paired with news alerts and social media made audiences less likely to turn on their televisions. Americans would wake up to alerts on their phones about medal-winning performances and would find videos of the performance on social media. Because NBC often tape-delayed their coverage, there was less incentive for people to tune in for events they already knew the results for.

The New York Times reported that NBC Sports’ Olympic channel on the TikTok app gained a 348% increase in followers throughout the Games. It became easier to search for a video on YouTube or Twitter than find out when each event would be featured on the air.

Viewers also turned to social media to voice their displeasure about the number of ads that were being run during events. There were split-screen ads that were larger than the televised event and other ads that ran through entire races, such as the first semi-final of the women’s 100 fly which featured both Americans, Torri Huske and Claire Curzan.

This was also due in part to NBC’s contract as the sole streamer of the Olympics. The network began giving out more ad space to make up for the lack of viewers. When the Games had started, NBC already had its ads lined up with its big advertisers such as Toyota, Subway, and Geico. When ratings started coming in, NBC realized they were not getting the numbers they had projected and therefore began selling ad slots to more companies. The idea was that the money they received from the companies being advertised would make up for the revenue loss from low viewership.

Australia’s Seven Sees Continued Success

Seven Network reported another week of record audiences watching the Olympic coverage. According to Media Week, the largest audience was on Day 9 when the Australians picked up the most gold medals on a single day in the country’s history.

The Australians saw a rather large jump in the number of medals earned since the 2016 Olympics. They brought home 29 medals during the 2016 Rio Olympics and won 46 in Tokyo. This count is closer to the numbers they saw between 2000-2008, racking up a total of 58 medals at the 2000 Olympics hosted in Sydney.

Japan Hits Medal Record

Japan’s Olympic success also appeared to increase the number of television viewers. The host country brought home a total of 58 medals across all sports. This is 17 more medals than their previous record of 41 medals at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. According to the Nikkei Asia, the IOC reported that nine in ten Japanese viewers tuned in to watch at least one event at the Olympics.

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Rafael
2 months ago

I have some friends who are in the US and I have to say. NBC has one of the WORST OG coverages… 99,999% of time just Team USA if there is no american they don´t show anything and even when there are americans they just skip a lot of stuff and also commercials during the competition.

I could watch Tennis Table, Karate, Judo, does not matter if there was a local athlete competing. All the events that had camera there I could watch here (And I paid like.. 10 dollars for the whole event)

Last edited 2 months ago by Rafael
Rafael
Reply to  Rafael
2 months ago

It is not so difficult. Like Sportv had 4 channels with comment + up to 40 channels with just the streaming (I could like have 4 Tabble tennis games and the 6 MAG apparatus live at the same time, Plus whatever else was going on)

Armchair
Reply to  Rafael
2 months ago

Good grief: where to start? You’re wrong. First, NBC is an American network serving a mostly American audience, so, yes–duh–it’s going to broadcast mostly American athletes in competition. However, and second, NBC in fact broadcast a LOT of races/competitions that did not feature Americans. I watched the women’s team archery final–no Americans; handball, no Americans. NBC broadcast all of the cycling, rowing and canoeing races–well over 50 races–and 90 percent of those races had no Americans. NBC broadcast all of the men’s volleyball knockout matches AFTER the U.S. team had been eliminated in the group stage. In fact, this was a dream Olympics for Games junkies like me because NBC broadcast nearly EVERYTHING! There were events on all day on… Read more »

Yabo
Reply to  Armchair
2 months ago

Found NBCs secret swimswam account

Admin
Reply to  Armchair
2 months ago

I appreciated that this year, we were able to access everything via the streaming app on our TVs, on demand, with the international feed.

But, when I talked to my dad on the phone, who’s 72 but pretty tech-forward for his age, he still had trouble finding what he wanted a lot of the time.

When it comes down to it, America’s diversity makes it really hard to cover Games like these. There are a lot of Americans who just want to see the US flag rise above the stadium, play the anthem, punctuated by fluffy human interest pieces, and smile. There are others who have certain sports they like, regardless of the country. Still others, like me, who just… Read more »

Spectatorn
Reply to  Braden Keith
2 months ago

yes, it was crazy for the new generation who no longer see the differences between USA network and NBC. Many of us don’t even have TV. I was chatting with a few other friends on watching swimming and we were all very confused on the NBC schedule. But again, I ended up just use nbcolympics.com and select the sport for full schedule and watch from there.

2 days into swimming, by accident, learned that NBC sports app did put all the options together. For Swimming final, I have two devices on, one with nbcolympics and one with NBC primetimes. Muted NBC primetimes except for post race interview of US swimmers.

Awsi Dooger
Reply to  Armchair
2 months ago

Agreed. Great summary. NBC did fine. I taped everything and streamed nothing. I totally cleared my DVR prior to the Games so I could tape everything on NBC, NBCSN, CNBC, USA Network, Olympic Channel and Golf Channel. I did not watch one event live and fell steadily behind, to the point I was 2 full days behind at Games’ end. I am magnificent at avoiding results. For two weeks I never used my phone and avoided sports related websites including this one, although I did duck in here a couple of times after watching the tape of swimming during the wee hours. I watched in chronological order and made sure to avoid any event in which I knew they might… Read more »

oldswimguy
Reply to  Armchair
2 months ago

I literally watched every heat of swimming. It was easily done by anyone with a little streaming capability plus cable. There was so much more coverage this Olympics than anytime in the past.

Spectatorn
Reply to  Rafael
2 months ago

yes, it is confusing for NBC to put different things at different app or channel. I ended up just using the nbcolympics.com which show live event (with some ads) and non-boardcast commentators. For swimming I was listening to Nicole and James (?) but not Rowdy 🙂

VA Steve
Reply to  Rafael
2 months ago

Ato Boldon (on NBC but from T&T) is an excellent commentator, analysis. Go back and watch the 400m hurdles and try and detect an overt bias about who won (Norway or US). He actually watches the track as he is talking during the race. A refreshing breath of fresh air. There were many commentators who were good–the commercials and swimming announcers are not up to par.

Last edited 2 months ago by VA Steve
M Palota
2 months ago

Here in Canada, we can watch both NBC and CBC’s coverage of the games. NBC’s production values are amazing; head & shoulders above CBC’s. NBC’s commentary, though, is – to put it politely – vapid.

Rafael
Reply to  M Palota
2 months ago

If you could see Sportv coverage you would be surprised…

Dan
Reply to  Rafael
2 months ago

Eurosport was fairly good too, in the past the Australian commentators have been really good (did not watch anything with the Aussie commentators other than their Trials this summer).

SwimFL
Reply to  Dan
2 months ago

I LOVE the Aussie and British commentators. Less drama, predicting, and explanation and more race commentating. US commentators love to be the voice of what’s going on inside the swimmer’s head. Very annoying.

Meeeeeee
Reply to  M Palota
2 months ago

i have both also and watched CBC almost exclusively. They show the events much better with fewer fluff pieces about a grandparent who died 10 years ago, etc.

DMSWIM
2 months ago

For me on the east coast, it was on too late. I have a job and swim myself in the mornings, so I couldn’t stay up until 11 each night. Also, I felt like there was so much fluff, downtime, and commercials, especially during the non-swimming coverage that was tape delayed. The fluff pieces on the athletes ranged from cheesy to bizarre (Regan Smith’s piece comes to mind). Even with a cable subscription, it was very hard to figure out where to watch things. I never figured out how to watch open water. Overall, this was the least engaged I’ve been with the Olympics which is a shame because we all waited five years for it.

Rafael
Reply to  DMSWIM
2 months ago

Some headlines were like borderline hilarious/bizarre.. such as Men 400M Hurdle.. Warholm “CHASES DOWN” Rai, “Barely Holds” Rai. For freaking sake, he was already the WR Holder and is now the first and ONLY men under 46. Top 3 were faster than Young former WR and it was like… Meh

ReneDescartes
Reply to  DMSWIM
2 months ago

Totally agreed as a east coaster. I didn’t want to stay up to watch, but I did, and I’m still paying the price now.

Armchair
Reply to  DMSWIM
2 months ago

The commercials were annoying, There were too many of them, and it was the same companies broadcasting the same commercials endlessly. But when you pay, what, more tan $6 BILLION for the broadcast rights (or was it more than $7B?), you will need to sell a LOT of ads to cover that ginormous outlay. Beyond that, it was obvious that U.S. corporate advertisers were determined to be socially and politically correct. I’ll leave it at that.

Rap
Reply to  Armchair
2 months ago

Everyone single commercial was so sappy/woke. Really hard to watch. I’m also never buying a Toyota after the million painful commercials that barely made sense

Dan
Reply to  Armchair
2 months ago

Think that was for the rights for multiple Olympic games, not just one.

Spectatorn
Reply to  DMSWIM
2 months ago

yes, it was a rough week for me in west coast as well. Can’t take the week off so recording will not work since finals were at 6:30pm – decent time but that also means no time to watch prelim before final. Ended up watching live at 3am, short nap before work and watch final right after.

Last edited 2 months ago by Spectatorn
Charge
2 months ago

I think alot of American’s tuned out because there were no fans in arenas. The roar of the crowd is honestly half the spectacle

Rookie
Reply to  Charge
2 months ago

Yeah…but that horn was AWESOME!

Joel
Reply to  Charge
2 months ago

You’re kidding? No fans so I won’t watch?

Tomek
Reply to  Charge
2 months ago

The fun part was the microphones were picking up sound bits I would not hear otherwise

Roch
2 months ago

This isn’t hard. Time zones and NBC being awful lead to lower viewership. I can’t wait until someone outbids them for rights.

Frisk Driscoll
Reply to  Roch
2 months ago

Current Contract is through 2032…at least 3 more Summer Olympiads with NBC.

Armchair
Reply to  Frisk Driscoll
2 months ago

And I believe NBC has broadcast the Olympics for the last 20 years–at least.

Awsi Dooger
Reply to  Armchair
2 months ago

More than that. They took over the Summer Games from ABC beginning in 1988. It was a big shock at the time because ABC and Jim McKay/Roone Arledge had long been synonymous with the Olympics. It was later with the Winter Olympics. CBS did all of those in the ’90s, including the ratings gold mine in Lilliehammer 1994 during Nancy/Tonya.

Roch
Reply to  Frisk Driscoll
2 months ago

I know. I still can’t wait.

trip strauss
2 months ago

a question for swimming/olympic afficianados…….
why is it that the power of money and advertising determines that olympic swimming finals take place in the morning – to the detriment of the athletes’ performance – so that we can watch them live in America, yet prime time shows track and field and gymnastics after we already know the results and the athletes get to compete at a time when their performance is likely to be better?

Rafael
Reply to  trip strauss
2 months ago

Watch Gymnastics? Like you had Andrade, Skinner, Carey and Yeo vaulting and comments were about Biles

Last edited 2 months ago by Rafael
Armchair
Reply to  trip strauss
2 months ago

Wasn’t gymnastics broadcast live? I think it was, which would have meant finals in the morning in Tokyo. I’m quite sure a lot of track events were broadcast live as well. But I do agree that having athletic finals in the morning is an outrage and should not be done, if only because athletes are not used to being at peak readiness in the morning when otherwise they are playing/competing in the afternoon or at night. But TV and TV Money is the tail the wags the global sports dog. Why has the IOC been turning the august Games into something akin to America’s Got Talent or a State Fair with youth events like skateboarding, BMX and–next year–disc golf and… Read more »

Troyy
Reply to  Armchair
2 months ago

Gymnastics finals were at night Tokyo time. The earliest they started was 5pm and the latest nearly 8pm.

frug
Reply to  trip strauss
2 months ago

Well T&F would be harder to invert because they are outside so they have to try and avoid holding finals when it is blazing hot. Additionally, some Athletics events (like Decathlon, Heptathlon, Marathon, etc..) take hours.

That said, I suspect the biggest issue is that swimming always gets the biggest TV ratings.

Taa
2 months ago

what about all the woke athletes who turned off alot of viewers. You have to have the fans vested in the athletes to be compelled to watch. I think is where NBC fails to deliver. All we got was Simone Biles x 1000 and her story went sideways

Meeeeeee
Reply to  Taa
2 months ago

You got a lot of downvotes presumably from the woke viewers. But i think you are correct. There is a very large segment of the US population who dislikes being told they are [INSERT AGENDA ITEM HERE]. They are the same who have turned off the NBA and NFL.

Doconc
Reply to  Meeeeeee
2 months ago

Rapinhoe, women’s soccer, biles, Manuel, popovich/kerr, shot putter/blm, Gwen berry etc

All huge turnoffs

Tim Tom
2 months ago

get woke go broke