We’re currently weeks-deep into the 2020 Olympic Summer Games, the quadrennial effort by many of the planet’s greatest athletes to come together in a spirit of competition, and also a spirit of hopefully goosing NBC’s ratings and ad revenue for another four lucrative years. How well that’s going this year, though, can probably be extrapolated from the fact that we’re having those 2020 Summer Games in 2021, on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is just one of apparently several factors that have cut into the network’s viewership this year.
And, indeed: Reports have already begun to emerge that the Tokyo Games’ ratings on NBC (and its labyrinth of attendant networks and streaming services) is significantly lower-rated than 2016's Rio Games—which were already some of the lowest-rated Olympics in years. The New York Times reports, in a long piece today that analyzes the various factors that may have contributed to this particular swan dive, that NBC has gone so far as to offer advertisers who’ve already bought commercial time on the Games some free ad space on its schedule, to make up for their lower-than-expected return on investment.
As to why ratings have taken such a triple gainer into the proverbial toilet, the Times piece casts a pretty wide net. COVID is, obviously, a factor, with safety precautions at the Games, from the opening ceremony onward, making it impossible to escape images that remind everybody of the last pandemic year-plus—no matter how artfully the camera tries to avoid those empty stands. But there are also plenty of other factors, including the time gap between the States and Tokyo, which gives plenty of time for spoilers about event performance to leak onto the internet, and NBC’s own decision to spread its coverage so wide that they actually had to go get election scholar Steve Kornacki to come out and explain which events were on Peacock or NBC Sports or whatever.
But while NBC is probably hoping that whatever went wrong this year is correctible—either through planet-wide vaccination, or the tried-and-true solution of “More Kornacki”—by the time the Paris Games roll around in 2024, there’s also decent evidence that this is just…how it’s going to be from now on. It’s not news to anybody that the media landscape splinters more every year, as streaming services, TikTok, YouTube, especially shiny birds, etc. only give consumers more and more things to look at instead of the Games that NBC spent more than a billion dollars securing the rights to. (And which the Japanese government has pushed forward on holding, despite protests from a lot of people that it simply wasn’t safe to bring even a relatively limited number of people to Tokyo to hold them.) Per Brad Adgate, a media analyst quoted in the Times piece: “The days of mass-media appointment viewing are dwindling down to, like, the Super Bowl. If you want to look at the Olympics pessimistically, it’s just not the crown jewel that it used to be.”