The End of the Olympics

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With the closing ceremonies Sunday night the Games of the 31st Olympiad came to a close. For the United States Olympians these Olympics can only be deemed a huge success. The United States won more medals than any other country by far. American athletes Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles and the whole of the U.S. Women’s gymnastics team were the toast of the Games and if they were not before, they are surely now household names. And the Olympics crushed all competition in the television ratings. The American public just doesn’t seem to have cared very much.

Comcast Corp., parent company of Olympic broadcaster NBC, paid $12 billion for exclusive U.S. broadcast rights to the Olympics through 2032. The first Olympics part of that deal saw ratings drop 17 percent from the London Olympics in 2012. And in the 18-to-49-year-old age group coveted by advertisers ratings were down about 25 percent. As a result it has been reported NBC will have to “make good” to advertisers for lost revenue. An inauspicious start for NBC in their Olympic coverage for sure.

Numerous reasons have been given for this unspectacular performance. First, the London Olympics were the most watched event in television history, so it may be unfair to compare these Games to those. Second, the television audience for sports is getting older. Sports is less ingrained in younger demographics, resulting in fewer young eyes on the Olympics. Millennials are more inclined to choose other entertainment options such as Netflix or video games over live sports. This is one reason NBC offered more options than ever for watching the Games online. But such choice dilutes traditional viewership and thereby television ratings. While NBC did a fairly good job in monetizing these online streams it does not compensate for the lost television revenue.

By NBC’s measurements the Rio Olympics  had the “second-highest average audience on record for the prime time competition coverage for any non-domestic Summer Games”. This measurement contains all viewership across all mediums but may be of some encouragement to NBC. However, at least one survey shows an all-time low in American interest in the Olympics. And viewership by millennials not only declined this Olympics but for the past 4 Olympics. Less people watched because they didn’t want to.

One benefit for NBC to having the Olympics in Rio was that is only 1 hour ahead of U.S. Eastern Standard Time. Good for television ratings because it would give NBC greater opportunities to show live events. Except many of the events broadcast by NBC in primetime were tape delayed. Meaning unless purposefully avoided, the majority of viewers probably knew the results of events already from the news. Or if you consumed any of NBC’s live streams.

Additionally, NBC has been universally savaged for the entirety of their Olympic coverage. One problem, as typified by the problematic use of tape delays, is that the Olympics are more entertainment than sport. The Olympics rely on the interest of non-sports fans. However, from the aforementioned tape delays to reports of myriad problems in Rio prior to the Olympics there were numerous factors which may have deterred the casual viewer from tuning in in the first place. Then the opening ceremonies were bad. The commentators were criticized for being inappropriate and sexist. And the number of promos for NBC programming was staggering.

In short, the Olympics succeed as neither sport nor entertainment. Sports fans don’t watch because the games are not live and the results are known. Casual fans don’t watch because the coverage is bad so they have no incentive to watch. Which is unfortunate because they should.

The Olympics are entertaining in and of itself. The hopes and dreams of countries live with their best athletes. And can die within the frame of one event. The Olympics give us tremendous stories of success and spectacular failure. The rise of Katie Ledecky and the retirement of Michael Phelps to the fallen runners who carried one another across the finish line. The Olympics lend themselves to storytelling. And that they’re only once every 4 years makes them appointment viewing. NBC simply has to get out of its own way.

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