The 2022 Winter Olympics are occurring at the moment—which you might need reminding of, given the ratings numbers NBC is apparently pulling for the event. Bloomberg reports tonight that the 2022 Games in Beijing are currently set to have the worst TV viewership in Olympics history, currently operating at roughly half of what the 2018 games in PyeongChang, South Korea four years ago.
To be fair to NBC, it clearly knew things weren’t going to be great this year going into the Games; the network, which paid $7.75 billion back in 2014 to secure broadcast rights to the Games through 2032, had already issued notices to advertisers before the Games even started to expect a lower-than-average return on investment for whatever big sacks of money they’d spent on ads. (Among other things, NBC skipped out on offering its usual expensive guarantees of certain viewership levels to major advertisers.)
There have been a few major factors that people are using to explain the dip. For one, there’s the whole political and diplomatic angle, with the United States declining to send official representatives to China for the Games, citing human rights abuses including the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghur people living within its borders. On a more prosaic level, the time zone difference between the States and China means NBC has to pick between airing events in the middle of the night, or holding them back until primetime (as results propagate wildly online). That’s all compounded by the pandemic of it all; last year’s make-up Summer Games in Japan also plummeted in viewership, marking record lows.
A few caveats here, though. For one, “low ratings” doesn’t mean NBC didn’t kick seven kinds of hell out of every other offering in primetime this past week; fewer people might be watching them, but these are still the Olympics we’re talking about. And Bloomberg quotes NBCUniversal’s president of advertising as saying that, despite the loss of regular ratings, the company expects to make back plenty of its ad revenue by streaming the Games through Peacock and other platforms. Which might be the way forward, anyway: An emphasis on streaming gets around the time zone issue neatly, and also lines up with the ways a lot of people would rather experience the Games in the first place.
For now, the 2022 Games are set to cruise toward a record low; we’ll have to wait until 2024, in Paris, to see if this is a more permanent shift.