NBC’s Summer Olympics Low Ratings: What Went Wrong?

As expected, NBC’s ratings for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games were lower than the 2012 London Games which were lower than 2008 Beijing Games. In general, it appears that Americans are becoming less interested in the Olympics, but is it the actual games that are causing a drop in interest or could it be the way that NBC has been covering the games that is the real issue? What went wrong?

Variety reported that Sunday’s viewership of the closing ceremony was much lower than the London games just four years ago. The preliminary Nielsen estimates stated that about 15 million viewers tuned in for the ceremony’s festivities, a drop from 17 million in 2012. However, NBC states that the London closing ratings were the highest in 36 years. Regardless, Justin Peters from Slate pointed out that overall, viewership in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic dropped by 25 percent even though the U.S. dominated in medals (121 medals: 46 Gold, 37 Silver, and 38 Bronze. Great Britain came in second with 67).

So why the lack of enthusiasm for the Games? Everyone has a theory.

“Part of that is that the audience for sports is getting older and millennials are less inclined to watch live sports,” says Ken Fang of Awful Announcing. “With younger viewers viewing programs through unconventional methods and not through the traditional TV set, the Olympics are being consumed more via online streaming. However, that still doesn’t make up for the lost ratings.”

“The U.S. crushed it at the Olympics this year. America yawned and played Pokémon Go,” says Justin Peters.

For Peters, he suspects that America is just too good or perceived as too good. “Overwhelming victory has become the norm, to the point where even historically great performances pass by unnoticed,” he says. “This year, 33 of America’s medals came in swimming and 32 came in track and field; another 12 came in gymnastics. When we say ‘the United States is too good at the Olympics,’ what we mean is ‘the United States is really good at a couple of events that give out a bunch of medals.'”

Over 40 sports played a part at this year’s Summer Olympics, and yet, the ones that most Americans saw during prime time were swimming, gymnastics, track and field, beach volleyball, and diving. Viewers were treated to the victories of Michael Phelps and David Boudia, the spectacle of Usain Bolt, and the antics of Ryan Lochte, but those who wanted to see a larger variety of the sports needed to either watch during the day, record the other events on their DVR or visit NBCOlympics.com or the NBC Olympics app which did broadcast every single sport. It is estimated that the sites received a 24 percent increase from the London Games, but that doesn’t fix the prime time coverage starting with the opening ceremonies.

Despite the fact that NBC continues to see its viewership numbers slide, the network rarely changes how it reports the Games. There was about an hour’s worth of filler before the presentation of the opening ceremony, meaning that many had to watch past midnight to see the program in its entirety. FOX News said that many critics began calling NBC short for “Nothing But Commercials” in that five commercial breaks were made during the ceremony’s first half hour.

Another frustration with viewers was NBC’s insistence for tape delay even though Rio is only an hour ahead of American East Coast times. Many of those living in the Northern states opted to watch Canada’s BBC’s coverage of the Games instead. John Miller, NBC’s Olympics chief marketing officer, made this bold claim a month before the Olympics had started.

“The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the [Olympic] games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one.”

That statement was found to be offensive to both men and women alike. Where NBC thinks that they are presenting the “journey,” it is quite possible that they are boring viewers instead.

“Although previous Olympics broadcasts have also faced criticism, NBC execs might have reason to wonder if the network’s approach isn’t working in the fast-paced social media age,” says FOX News.

[Photo by Mark Humphrey/AP Images]