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Tuning out Tokyo? Olympic ratings in focus after slow start

By Zachary Halaschak,


V iewership for this year’s Olympics is down compared to the past, and several factors could be to blame.

NBC, which signed a multi-billion contract extension to air the Olympic games through 2031, had the worst ratings for an opening ceremony of the Olympics in more than three decades, bringing in just 12.3 million prime-time viewers and an estimated 5 million who viewed it over the internet in real time. The viewership was the smallest since the 1988 opening ceremony in Seoul, South Korea.

While there were successive viewership increases over the next two days (a feat not accomplished since 1992), overall viewership still fell short of past games. Saturday night’s prime-time coverage across all platforms was 15.3 million and increased to 19.8 million on Sunday. Still, that is a major dip from the first Saturday and Sunday of Brazil’s 2016 games, which averaged 23.5 million and 31.8 million viewers, respectively, according to Reuters .

The first, and perhaps most important, factor to consider is the time difference between the United States and Japan. Because the games are being played on the other side of the globe, prime-time viewing in the U.S. is often not aligned with the contests. Ratings are better when the time zone is closer to the U.S, according to Patrick Rishe, a sports business professor at Washington University in St. Louis.


While a big portion of the rating dip is tied to the time change (the live opening ceremony took place at 7 a.m. EST), Rische said the lack of in-person fans might have also caused a rating lull. He pointed out that when Australian swimmer Ariarne Titmus bested U.S. star Katie Ledecky in the 400m freestyle, her coach Dean Boxall’s post-victory celebration went viral on the internet.

“It probably stood out because he was one of very few people that was actually in the stands,” Rishe said, adding that part of the reason people tune in is that viewers like seeing fan reactions and the drama unfold.

Jay Rosenstein, a former vice president of programming at CBS Sports who now teaches at New York University, said when he worked at CBS, they always wanted to have a good scene for those tuning in — for example a full stadium or shots of fans with their hands folded in prayer.

“All of that builds the emotion of the moment for the viewer at home,” he explained. “And when you see a packed house roaring, getting to its feet, all of that is important to television.”

Rosenstein told the Washington Examiner the lower ratings are “not surprising at all” given the time difference between Tokyo and Brazil, adding the economics of the entertainment industry are shifting toward a focus on more streaming.

While exact details on streaming figures have not been made available, NBC said that through Sunday, viewers streamed 735 million total minutes of Tokyo Olympics content, which is up 24% from the same time during the 2016 Olympics. NBC Sports Digital also had its second-largest prime-time Olympics streaming audience, with an estimated 636,000 viewers per minute, according to NBC.

As streaming services continue to grow and the market becomes more fractured, the Olympics will become less universal, given how many other niche sources of entertainment there are for consumers, Rosenstein said.


In years past, athletes like legendary swimmer Michael Phelps dominated the front pages of newspapers across the country. Rosenstein said he didn’t think there was as much star power at this year’s games as in the past, especially considering legendary U.S. gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of the team finals on Tuesday.

Early exits from either the U.S. men’s basketball team or the U.S. women’s soccer team could further fuel declines in domestic viewership, Rishe also noted.

Some potential U.S. viewers could also just be more focused on vacation this summer than what is on the TV screen.

Rick Burton, professor of sports management at Syracuse University, said another consideration when weighing what’s contributing to lower ratings is a glut in travel demand.

He pointed out in an email to the Washington Examiner that those in the U.S., which unlike some other countries is nearly fully reopened, have a wide range of summer options for vacation and have built up demand after not being able to travel last year.

Despite the lower ratings relative to past years, NBC’s numbers have still dominated compared to TV’s other offerings. Viewership was nearly five times larger than its closest sans-Olympic rival ABC, which had 2.41 million viewers on Friday.


Rishe said no matter how much worse this year’s Olympic ratings end up being than in games past, the overall gap between sports ratings and non-sports ratings has grown in recent years, so NBC investing in sports media rights for the Olympics is still a worthwhile investment.

“So not surprising to me that the ratings, in general, have gone down — important for readers to know that the reason why these companies still invest money isn’t so much because of the absolute ratings but the relative ratings,” Rishe said.

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