The Summer Olympics, one of the most-watched events on the planet, begin this weekend in Tokyo.
After being postponed for a year due to the pandemic, NBC is hoping that pent-up demand will drive sports fans to their televisions, laptops, and phones to watch. However, traditional TV viewership of this year’s games faces a number of obstacles that could result in a ratings disaster for the Tokyo Olympics.
“This is most likely going to be the lowest-rated summer Olympics in history,” said Patrick Crakes, a former Fox Sports executive who now works as a media consultant. “They can’t avoid the increased media fractionalization that’s enabling everyone to spend more time with all sorts of content.”
The good news for NBC is that it won’t have to rely solely on traditional television ratings to profit from the Olympics.
Live events, highlights, interviews, stories, and other shareable clips are all available on streaming and digital platforms, giving viewers more ways to watch the Olympics than ever before. That’s why, while traditional TV viewership may be at an all-time low, the Olympics may still reach more people than ever before.
“I think we could see that its reach across all platforms was bigger than any Olympics that came before,” Crakes said.
Will the Olympics’ ratings plummet? For NBC, this is the big question.
The drop in TV ratings isn’t new: TV viewership for the 2016 Rio Olympics was down 18% from the 2012 London Olympics. Since then, however, the proliferation of TV shows, films, and other forms of content across multiple platforms has accelerated dramatically.
“All linear television is down,” said Jay Rosenstein, a former vice president of programming at CBS Sports, who predicts another drop in Olympics viewership. The television industry has changed dramatically in the last five years. Viewers now have a variety of options for watching content, ranging from social media to streaming services.
Consider the number of streaming services that have debuted in the last 12 months alone.
NBC wants high ratings because if they fall too low, the network may be forced to compensate advertisers for lower-than-expected viewership with free advertisements later. (In the TV industry, this is referred to as “make-goods.”)
Sports have become even more important to networks and advertisers as viewership for other ratings drivers (such as award shows) has dropped sharply.
Of course, another unique aspect of these Olympics is that they are taking place in the midst of a pandemic. The games have already had to contend with questions about whether they should be held at all, as well as reports that a growing number of athletes have tested positive for the virus.
However, the biggest problem from a television standpoint is that the games have no viewers. The absence of fans presents “a hell of a challenge,” according to Bob Costas, the legendary sportscaster who hosted 11 Olympic games.
Rosenstein stated, “There is no substitute for fans.” “Think of swimming, the screaming that takes place when they’re dealing in hundredths of a second to the touch and how loud that can get and how enthused it gets you at home. Absolutely, fans matter.”
The NBA Finals, for example, were down from two years ago, but they rebounded significantly from last year, when they were held in a bubble with no fans.
That isn’t to say that the Olympics won’t succeed.
“What NBC has to do, and which they do so well, is they weave a tapestry in prime time where you get to experience the lives of these athletes and watch their performances and identify with their country or with themselves,” said Rosenstein.
NBC has announced that it will broadcast 7,000 hours of Olympics coverage across broadcast, cable, and streaming platforms.