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NBC’s Winter Olympics Ratings Are Heading Toward a Historic Low

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 2/10/2022 Gerry Smith
BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 09: Colby Stevenson of United States performs a trick during the Men's Freestyle Skiing Freeski Big Air Final on Day 5 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Big Air Shougang on February 09, 2022 in Beijing on Feb. 9. © Photographer: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 09: Colby Stevenson of United States performs a trick during the Men's Freestyle Skiing Freeski Big Air Final on Day 5 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Big Air Shougang on February 09, 2022 in Beijing on Feb. 9.

(Bloomberg) -- As the Winter Olympics near the halfway point, NBC’s viewership is nearly half of what it was four years ago and is on pace to be the lowest in the event’s history.

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An average of 12.3 million nightly viewers per day have watched the Winter Olympics on Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal TV and streaming channels through Feb. 8. That compares with about 23 million viewers at the same point for the 2018 games in PyeongChang, South Korea, according to an NBC spokesman. 

NBC anticipated about 40% fewer viewers than four years ago and cut its ad rates by a similar amount, according to people familiar with the matter. The network was trying to avoid what happened during the Tokyo games last summer, when the ratings fell below what it had guaranteed. That hurt NBC’s potential revenue because the broadcaster had to give additional commercial time to advertisers to make up for the shortfall.

So far this week, NBC’s Olympics viewership is roughly on par with what it promised, said Adam Schwartz, director of sports media at Horizon Media. 

“Do I want the ratings to be down 40%? Absolutely not,” said Schwartz, whose clients bought commercial time during the games. “But I don’t think it’s a cause for panic about the Olympics whatsoever.”

NBC is hoping to make up for lower ad rates by airing the games on more platforms than in 2018, including TikTok and Peacock, its streaming service. That has boosted the amount of commercial spots the company can sell. As a result, NBC could lessen any potential financial hit from the ratings decline.

“Is there a scenario where we make as much, if not more? Yeah, there’s a scenario,” Dan Lovinger, NBCUniversal’s president of advertising sales and partnerships, said in an interview.

He added the Olympics are “going almost exactly as we suspected they would” and “we feel great about where we stand from an advertiser-delivery perspective.”

Even as the Olympics ratings keeping falling, sponsors have few other options to reach a large number of people in a fragmented media market. Demand remains high because the games still dominate television ratings for two weeks. 

“We live in such a different landscape now compared to four years ago,” Schwartz said. “Viewership habits have changed so much. And live sports is still the most effective vehicle to reach people.”

Price Record

NBC generated $920 million in national ad sales for the PyeongChang games and turned a profit. Lovinger declined to say how much revenue NBC expects for these Olympics. The combined sales from the Winter Olympics and the Super Bowl, which NBC will air on Sunday, would be about the same as in 2018, when it also aired both events, he said. The network has said this year’s Super Bowl set an ad-price record, as much as $7 million for a 30-second spot.

There are many theories for why the Olympics ratings are down. There’s the general decline in TV viewing; a 13-hour time difference between Beijing and the East Coast; a controversy over the host country’s human rights record; fewer fans attending due to Covid-19 restrictions; and potential viewer fatigue with a second Olympics just six months after the summer games.

NBC has heavily promoted Team USA, hoping that people will tune in to see American athletes win gold medals. But the Americans have gotten off to a slow start. One of the biggest American stars, skier Mikaela Shiffrin, was disqualified from two races, and American figure skater Vincent Zhou withdrew from a competition after testing positive for COVID-19. On Thursday, another American star, figure skater Nathan Chen, won gold, however.

Like last summer in Tokyo, NBC is hoping the games will draw viewers to Peacock. The streaming service is showing every Olympics event for the first time to people who sign up for its $5-a-month premium tier. NBC said total digital usage of the Olympics, including Peacock, surpassed 1 billion minutes, the fastest it had hit that milestone for a winter games. 

NBC is also using the Olympics as a testing ground for a new way to measure viewership. While its advertising deals are still based on ratings provided by Nielsen, NBC is promoting audience data this week from market researcher iSpot.TV. That data has shown Olympics viewers are more engaged in the commercials, among other things.

“We’re trying to cover the gap in measurement that Nielsen can’t,” Lovinger said. “Consumption patterns have changed so rapidly and Nielsen hasn’t caught up.”

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