Olympic Ratings, Boosted by Streaming, Barely Stumbled in Pyeongchang

Sure, it's an all-time low for an Olympic Games — but it could have been a lot worse.
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The verdict is in on the 2018 Winter Olympics, and it's pretty good.

Admittedly, Pyeongchang ranks as the least-watched games in the Olympics' long TV history — but that was always going to be the case. The first of three Olympics set in Asia had to fight time-zone delays, spoilers and the lower interest that Winter Games tend to garner. So the fact that NBC's primetime coverage, much of it delayed from the significant time difference from South Korea, shed only 8 percent of the audience from Sochi four years ago is actually quite a feat.

Averages from Nielsen Media and NBC have the primetime audience averaging 19.8 million over two-plus weeks of coverage. That number — a combination of live NBC telecasts on both coasts, delayed NBC coverage in Pacific and Mountain time zones, NBC Sports Network coverage and streaming — is only off 1.5 million viewers from the comparable Sochi figure. And while Pyeongchang may rank as the least-watched Olympics, Winter or Summer, it narrowly achieved that status by trailing Torino in 2006 by the incredibly slim margin of 2 percent.

NBC was aided greatly by the addition of live coverage on the West Coast and a quick turnaround for streaming measurement. Streaming lifted the 2018 Olympics by an average 11 percent, with the audience skewing more and more digital as the days went on.

"Absent of any compelling story like 'Miracle on Ice,' this is the best they can do," said Marc Ganis, president of sports marketing firm Sportscorp. "Put it live digital basis. Put it on live for primary population centers. Tape delay it where you have to. It's the only way to address the problem of a time zone that's 14 hours different."

Looking at just NBC coverage, Olympic viewership is technically down 16 percent from 2014. The time-zone issue wasn't the only thing working against these Games, as it wasn't a particularly winning go for the U.S. team. Though the country matched its gold showings (nine) from Sochi, the overall medal count was down from 29 to 23, and many major U.S. personalities hyped in the long run-up to the Games, like figure skater Nathan Chen and skier Lindsey Vonn, did not perform at the levels many expected them to.

Looking ahead to 2020 (Tokyo) and 2022 (Beijing), one of NBC Sports' top Olympic lessons is to likely lean more into digital. Streaming outperformed all expectations, with 1.85 billion minutes clocked over the course of the Games, quadrupling the showing from just four years ago.

NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus, taking a victory lap Monday afternoon, issued the following statement: “These Winter Games are once again profitable for NBC Sports Group, and validate our investment in the Olympics. With the most comprehensive coverage plan in Winter Games history, our team of thousands took on this Olympic-sized undertaking from PyeongChang (2,000-plus), Stamford (1,000-plus), New York, Englewood Cliffs and Denver. The team’s collective performance allowed us to present an Olympics that was both engaging and memorable. At a time when there is more entertainment than ever for consumption, the Olympics offered an unmatched communal experience. We look forward to Tokyo and beyond.”