TV Ratings: Rio Olympics Opening Ceremony Falls 28 Percent From London

Early ratings are still quite huge, though the Summer Games start out at their lowest since 1996.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

They were bound to be big — but the Olympic ratings did not start out as NBC has grown accustomed to for a Summer Games.

The 2016 Summer Olympics kicked off in Rio de Janeiro on Friday night, airing (almost) live on NBC in much of the U.S. Early returns give the broadcast network's coverage an overnight 16.5 rating among households. That should likely translate to somewhere in the vicinity of 30 million viewers — putting it well south of the 23.0 overnight rating from the most recent Summer Games in London. It stands as the lowest overnight for a Summer Games since 1996.

The swirl of controversy around housing, polluted water and generally rough times in the Brazilian metropolis dominated the conversation in the run-up to the Games, not unlike the Sochi scandals in 2014, but there were few worries of it dampening ratings. If Rio's opening ceremony had anything working against it, it was the lack of spectacle that the cash-strapped South American country would be able to present. Beijing and London set a very high bar for theatricality during the last two Summer Olympics.

Working against the ratings draw also was the earlier go-time for the U.S. Olympic team during the Parade of Nations. That came an hour earlier than in London. Ratings peaked at a 19.0 overnight between 10 and 10:15 p.m., when the U.S. team walked. 

Down though they might be, the Olympics are still quite massive. In the primetime hours between 8 and 11 p.m., the coverage averaged a 10.0 rating in the advertiser-favored demo of adults 18-49.

Even more so than its Winter counterpart, the Summer Olympics are ratings gold. The 2012 Summer Games in London were the most-watched event in U.S. TV history, pulling in 219 million American viewers over the two-plus weeks of coverage. That number included an average primetime audience of 31.1 million viewers, an astounding feat considering contemporary viewing habits. All told, 2012 also was the most-watched non-U.S.-hosted Olympics since the landmark 1976 Montreal Games.

Opening ceremony ratings often set the tone for Olympic coverage. Night one of the 2012 Olympics soared to an all-time Summer Games high — a 20.0 rating among households and 40.7 million viewers. The only kickoff to pull a higher number in recent history, thanks to its domestic venue, was Salt Lake City's 2002 Winter Olympics. That opening ceremony drew a 25.5 rating and 45.6 million viewers.

Understandably, there has been a lot of speculation about how streaming will affect NBC's pull with viewers on the linear channel this Olympics. Not only is there more streaming available, the lack of a significant delay (thanks to Brasilia Standard Time) will likely compel more of the West Coast to find alternative ways of watching events as they happen. Early streaming results indicate that more viewers are tuning in that way. NBC Sports cites 42 million streaming minutes on Friday night, the second-biggest number for any Olympic event. (It trails the U.S.-Canada hockey game played in Sochi.) NBC, which has the Olympics on lock through at least 2032, did not have a difficult time wooing advertisers. The Rio Olympics are pulling in an estimated $1.2 billion to the Comcast-owned network.

Updates will arrive later — as will 16 more days' worth of ratings. In the meantime, here's a look at how the last eight Olympic opening ceremonies have performed, in final household ratings and total viewers, since NBC took over the broadcast contract:

2014: Sochi Winter Games — 17 rating; 31.7 million viewers
2012: London Summer Games — 21.7 rating; 40.7 million viewers
2010: Vancouver Winter Games — 17.3 rating; 32.7 million viewers
2008: Beijing Summer Games — 18.8 rating; 34.9 million viewers
2006: Turin Winter Games — 12.8 rating; 22.2 million viewers
2004: Athens Summer Games — 14.4 rating; 25.4 million viewers
2002: Salt Lake City Winter Games — 25.5 rating; 25.5 million viewers
2000: Sydney Summer Games — 16.2 rating; 16.2 million viewers

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