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NBC Touts a Silver Lining in Historically Low Viewership for the Tokyo Olympics

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USA's Anita Alvarez and Lindi Schroeder compete in the women's artistic swimming event, Tokyo Olympics, 2021.
USA's Anita Alvarez and Lindi Schroeder compete in the women's artistic swimming event, Tokyo Olympics, 2021. (ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images)

Like so many things connected to this year’s often-troubled Tokyo Olympics, 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: 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 such as 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 use since it debuted in April 2020.

But there’s also bad news. The average prime time viewership each night across all of 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. That’s a 42% plunge. Similarly, just 150 million Americans watched the Games, compared with 198 million who saw the events in Rio. It was the lowest average primetime viewership for the Games on NBC, which began broadcasting the Summer Olympics in 1988.

Figures show the uptick in viewing online doesn’t match the loss in audience on more traditional outlets such as 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 represent 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 that the company didn’t do a great job helping viewers sort through the sometimes-overwhelming amount 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 that 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 below does not bleep the salty language.)

NBC was already facing an uphill battle, negotiating a 13-hour time difference that 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 coronavirus tests, the world’s ongoing struggles with COVID-19 dampened an event that 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 that 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 such as the Today show and NBC Nightly News.

But the days when the Olympics were appointment television for most TV viewers seem 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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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