NBC Sees Low Ratings During a Difficult Olympics
The 1992 Barcelona Olympics had the Dream Team. The 2008 Beijing Olympics had the Michael Phelps sweeping medals. The Tokyo Olympics have a pandemic.
This has been the biggest challenge for NBCUniversal, the company that paid more than $ 1 billion to deliver 7,000 hours of game coverage across two broadcast networks, six cable channels and a fledgling streaming platform, Peacock. .
Ratings were a disappointment, averaging 16.8 million viewers per night until Tuesday, a steep drop from the 29 million same-day viewers of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. NBCUniversal offered to compensate for the smaller one than expected. television audience by offering free advertisements to some companies that bought advertising time during the games, according to four people with knowledge of the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations.
The opening ceremony set a pessimistic tone. Instead of the usual spectacle of athletes smiling and waving to the crowd, there was a procession of participants marching through a nearly empty Tokyo Olympic stadium, all wearing masks to protect against the spread of Covid-19 as a new variant was raging. The morning live broadcast and prime-time rerun scored the lowest for an opening ceremony in 33 years, with just under 17 million viewers. The peak came on Sunday, July 25, when just over 20 million people logged on.
“You can only play the hand that was dealt to you, and they received a tough hand,” said Bob Costas, who spent 24 years as host of the NBC’s prime-time Olympics before playing. leave the network in 2017. “You can’t create anything out of thin air. Everyone knows that these are, we hope, one of a kind Olympics. “
“It’s like someone is running the 100 meters and they have a weight around their ankles,” Mr. Costas continued. “It’s not a good judge of their speed.”
A widespread shift in viewing habits, from traditional TV to streaming platforms, has been a big factor in the number of people watching. While NBC’s prime-time viewership has shrunk significantly from what it was for the Rio Games five years ago, Olympic Games programming still attracts significantly more viewers than even TV shows. most popular entertainment. The most recent episode of CBS’s “Big Brother”, a leader in ratings, drew less than four million viewers.
“We had a bit of bad luck – there was a drumbeat of negativity,” Jeff Shell, chief executive of NBCUniversal, said on a conference call last week after NBC’s parent company, Comcast, said. announced its second quarter results. The less than festive atmosphere, he added, “resulted in a bit of the linear notes probably lower than we expected.”
Still, Mr Shell said he expected the Tokyo games to be profitable, with ad sales exceeding the cost of coverage. A spokesperson for NBCUniversal said on Thursday that total ad sales for the Tokyo games would be higher than for the Rio Olympics, noting that the games tend to be a more eye-catching advertising platform than most. programs.
The absence or early exits of popular athletes from some events, including gymnast Simone Biles, runner Sha’Carri Richardson, tennis champion Naomi Osaka and basketball star LeBron James, have further clouded expectations. And in a constant reminder of the coronavirus, on-air correspondents have been masked as they keep their distance from athletes.
Many reviews have been scorching, with complaints of a convoluted schedule preventing viewers from finding the events they wanted to watch. Critics also took issue with the thicket of distracting split-screen ads on NBC’s main broadcast.
“We look to the Olympics as an escape, as this fun and uplifting experience, and there have definitely been times like that,” said Jen Chaney, TV critic for Vulture. “But more than anything, watching this year has shown the injuries we face.”
Ms Chaney noted NBC’s interview with American swimmer Caeleb Dressel just after winning gold in a glamorous event, the men’s 100-meter freestyle. Moved to tears, Mr. Dressel said: “It has been a really difficult year. It was really hard. “
The 13-hour time zone difference between Tokyo and the east coast may also have figured in the decline in prime-time viewers. Many people in the United States have woken up to phone alerts announcing the medal winners that will be featured on that night’s show.
The strongest stories stemming from the competition – such as American gymnast Sunisa Lee’s overall victory – seemed to be gaining traction not so much on TV but in clips shared on social media. This trend was evident in the number of subscribers to NBCUniversal’s Olympic channel on TikTok, which has increased 348% since the opening ceremony.
Those who decide to watch must choose from a jumble of channels and digital options. In addition to NBC, coverage is spread across NBC Sports Network, CNBC, USA Network, Olympic Channel, Golf Channel and the Spanish language channels Universo and Telemundo, not to mention NBCOlympics.com, the NBC Sports app and Peacock.
There are so many choices that NBC’s “Today” show called Steve Kornacki, the political correspondent best known for elucidating the election results, to break it all down. “If you are a badminton fan you are going to look for NBCSN,” he told viewers. “If you’re an archery fan, USA Network. There are all kinds of different possibilities!
When Netflix and other streaming platforms began to reduce the dominance of traditional television, coverage of live events was something the networks could rely on to attract large numbers of viewers. Lately, however, even blockbuster events, including the NBA Finals, the World Series and the Oscars, have suffered in the odds.
“The days of date viewing in mass media are dwindling until the Super Bowl,” said Brad Adgate, media analyst. “If you want to look at the Olympics with pessimism, it just isn’t the crown jewel it used to be anymore.”
Coverage of the Olympics is led by NBCUniversal executive Molly Solomon, who was named president of NBC Olympics Production in 2019, a few months before the 2020 games were postponed.
“The Olympics are the most complicated sporting event in the world,” she said in an interview on Thursday. “The pandemic has added a layer of complexity. “
The production team consists of more than 3,000 people – 1,600 in Tokyo and 1,700 in the United States – who try to keep viewers in the moment by emphasizing tight camera shots that avoid stands without spectators and by amplifying the natural sounds of the competitions (the thud of a volleyball tip, the cries of the runners during relay transfers).
The production team also incorporates plans for home watch parties to capture the screams and screams of friends and family of medal winners at home, mini-segments that required significant prior work.
“It was a different experience for the viewer, and we tried to improve it considering that there were no fans here,” said Ms. Solomon, who has worked on the Olympics since she started at NBC in 1990. as a researcher for coverage of the Barcelona games network.
Prior to taking office, NBCUniversal’s Olympics coverage was led by Jim Bell, who stepped away from planning Tokyo in 2018 when the company appointed him responsible for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”. He left that program and NBC a year later.
Ms Solomon said she woke up at 4:30 a.m. in Tokyo and relied on double-shot lattes to get through workdays of up to 11 p.m. She disagrees with some critics of the cover.
“Every day new stars appear and new stories appear,” she said. “So, personally, I don’t want this to end.”
In the opinion of Mr. Costas, who guided viewers through NBC’s Olympic Games coverage from 1992 to 2016, any comparison of the Tokyo Games to previous competitions is not fair, given the attractiveness of the pandemic. And in three years, if all goes according to plan, NBCUniversal will get what amounts to a redesign in Paris.
“Paris 2024 will be, we hope, fingers crossed, much more like a classic Olympic situation,” he said. “It will be a more legitimate test.”
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