NBC Sports’ coverage of the Winter Olympics from Beijing earned the top spot in the prime-time rankings each night – but it was not nearly as dominant as four years ago.
Stamford-based NBC Sports’ prime-time programming during the games, which began Feb. 4 and culminated Sunday, produced an average audience of about 11.4 million viewers across all platforms, according to data from Nielsen and Adobe Analytics that was released Monday.
But the prime-time viewership plunged more than 40 percent from the 2018 winter games, as NBC Sports grappled with numerous challenges, including the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and controversy surrounding the human-rights record of the host country.
In the face of unprecedented challenges over the past six months, our production team showcased the thrilling competition, told the memorable stories and provided the important global context that continue to make NBC Olympics’ presentations of the summer and winter games must-see, appointment viewing, NBC Sports Chairman Pete Bevacqua said in a statement. With dominant audiences on NBC, USA Network and Peacock, we continue to adapt and evolve across all platforms.
The Olympics programming attracted the largest prime-time audiences of this television season, not including NFL programming. In total, about 160 million Americans watched the Beijing Olympics across all platforms.
Among the highlights, coverage of the closing ceremony on the NBC television network and Peacock streaming service marked the 109th-consecutive Olympics night that NBC ranked No. 1 in primetime.
But the average audience of 11.4 million for nightly coverage of the Beijing games equated to a 42 percent drop from the average of 19.8 million for the 2018 Winter Olympics, which were held in PyeongChang, South Korea. Nearly 16 million watched the Feb. 4 opening ceremony, compared with about 28 million for the 2018 opening ceremony.
There are so many entertainment options today, and people simply do not watch television in the same manner as they used to, said Josh Shugart, director of sports management at Sacred Heart University’s Jack Welch College of Business & Technology. As we seemingly emerge from a multi-year COVID fog, particularly younger viewers were not keen on devoting much time at all to Olympic viewership.
Shugart also cited the challenge of engaging viewers given that Beijing is 13 hours ahead of the U.S. east coast.
Other factors likely contributed to the viewership decline. Like the delayed Summer Olympics from Tokyo that were held last summer, the Beijing games lacked much of the pageantry of pre-pandemic Olympiads because COVID-19 restrictions meant that only small groups of spectators were allowed to attend the events.
At the same time, political controversy cast a shadow over the games. The White House announced in December a diplomatic boycott of the games to protest human-rights abuses in China.
In a similar show of opposition against the ruling Chinese Communist Party, protesters demonstrated on Feb. 12 outside NBC Sports’ headquarters at Blachley Road on Stamford’s East Side.
The Olympics being broadcast from Beijing, just 14 years after the last time they were broadcast from Beijing, at a time when China’s human rights violations are coming under greater scrutiny has hurt the Olympics brand as a global sports brand, said Daniel Durbin, director of the University of Southern California’s Institute of Sports, Media and Society.
Before the games, NBC Sports officials said their counterparts in parent company NBCUniversal’s NBC News division would focus on the political issues, while NBC Sports would focus on the athletes.
We should support our athletes, who’ve dedicated such a huge part of our lives to perform at this level and on behalf of the country, Bevacqua said in a recent interview. That’s what gets us excited in our sports group — telling those stories, introducing the American public to these Olympic heroes and creating these wonderful narratives around these athletes. That’s the power of the Olympics.
Amid the overall viewership decline, NBC Sports saw prolific consumption across digital platforms. Viewers streamed a winter games-record of 4.3 billion minutes across Peacock, which streamed every Olympic event for the first time; NBC Sports Digital; and social media platforms. Compared with the 2018 games, video views across all social media jumped 69 percent.
These games were incredible exposure for Peacock, Shugart said. NBCUniversal was able to refine the app on the fly, while promoting and encouraging their growing subscription base.
NBC Sports’ headquarters played a crucial role in the production of a record of more than 2,800 hours of Winter Olympics coverage. More than 1,500 staff members were based at 1 Blachley Road during the games, including announcing teams who called the action there instead of Beijing because of COVID-related concerns.
Bevacqua, NBC Olympics Production President and Executive Producer Molly Solomon and NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel said in a note Monday to staff that you all should feel extraordinarily proud of what we accomplished.
It has never been as complicated as the Beijing games, the note said. We navigated geo-political issues surrounding China, COVID, omicron, testing and more testing, unmatched travel complexities, quarantines, masks, a mere six-month break from the Tokyo games that felt like six seconds and a Super Bowl – ruminate on all of that for a moment. And, yet we pulled it off and did so in spectacular fashion.
Next up are the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris and the 2026 Winter Olympics in the Italian cities of Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo. In 2014, NBCUniversal paid $7.75 billion to secure broadcast rights for the Olympics through 2032.
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