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The Winter Olympics have always drawn more modest viewership numbers than the Summer Games, but the 2022 Beijing Olympics have been even more challenging than usual. The first few days of the games were down significantly in viewership compared to the 2018 Games, though as THR’s Rick Porter notes, they are consistent with what one would expect given linear TV’s slow and steady viewership decline.
And while Sunday’s Super Bowl, as well as strong showings from figure skater Nathan Chen and snowboarder Chloe Kim, should give the games a nice boost, executives at the company acknowledged to reporters on a conference call Thursday afternoon that the pandemic’s TV impact is still being felt.
“For us, it’s been difficult. There’s no way around this,” NBC Sports chairman Pete Bevacqua said. “The fact that we’ve been able to bring these games to life during a pandemic with only a six-month window between the two [Olympics], the ratings are — of course we always want to have the ratings better — but the ratings for these games, as I said, are about where we thought they’d be.
“It’s no secret that athletes in masks, venues without spectators, so much of the passion and excitement, those great moments of Olympic athletes hugging their family and friends and spouses and partners, so much of that magic is just out of necessity not present,” he added, noting that ratings for sports in 2020 when similar restrictions were in place also were depressed. “Look at the difference in NFL ratings in ’21 compared to ’20. I think one of the main differences is because in ’20, we didn’t have the passionate NFL fan base in those stadiums adding to the atmosphere. We did our best out of necessity. But this year, those fans were back and the ratings showed that.”
And so NBC is already looking ahead to 2024, when Paris will host the games, and the 2026 Winter Games in Italy. And, of course 2028, when Los Angeles will host and a viewership bonanza is all but assured.
“Why I’m energized is I think about where we’re going, think about Paris and Italy and L.A. And, knock on wood, not just for the Olympics, but for the sake of all of us, hopefully this pandemic is well beyond us by then, we have those spectators back in these venues bursting at the seams, we have those passionate family and friends and athletes without masks hugging each other and celebrating these Olympic achievements,” Bevacqua said. “We have our eye on that normalized future coming back into focus as we work our way through this pandemic, so that’s why we’re hopeful.”
But the Beijing Games have been successful in one critical area: Building out the company’s streaming business, both in terms of viewership and advertising sales.
For the 2022 Games, NBCU made all events available live on Peacock without the need for a cable subscription, as well as live simulcasts of its TV shows. The company also reorganized its interface to try and make events more easily accessible.
“I think we’ve made real drastic improvements on what we’ve done with Peacock,” Bevacqua said. “When you grade our performance in Tokyo versus Beijing, and when you see the reception that Peacock has received from the Peacock subscribers and the Peacock customers, the fact that you can go there for all things Olympic has been a nice supplement to all of our Prime coverage, our Prime Plus and our Prime West coverage.”
On the advertising front, executives said that despite the declining linear ratings, the ads have been “effective and efficient,” in no small part because of the increased streaming viewership. The company shared data from one of its measurement partners, ISPOT, which showed that despite a significantly lower ad load than the other broadcast networks, NBC’s Olympics coverage delivered nearly 200 percent more advertising impressions than the other networks combined.
“We are getting a more complete picture of ad performance for the first time, versus just focusing on programming audiences to moving toward including the advertisers in that experience as well,” Kelly Abcarian, executive vp measurement and impact for NBCU’s ad sales group, told THR in an interview.
“Advertisers know that they don’t buy ratings, they buy the value of the games, and they want a better understanding of how they get that value, and how it impacts their brand and their business and on the consumers they are trying to impact,” Abcarian added. “Historically, ratings were designed for a world where the ads traveled with the content, and now they don’t have to be.”
“We work hand-in-hand with our ad sales team led by Linda Yaccarino, Mark Marshall and Dan Lovinger, and the back and forth we have with them, what we are hearing from them … is that people have been incredibly pleased so far, to date, with the integration of the ads,” Bevacqua said. “Then, of course after the games, like we always do, we’ll regroup. We’ll go out and ask for their recommendations and their belief on how it went, and always try to improve it going forward.”
Meanwhile, Molly Solomon, the executive producer of NBC’s Olympics coverage, said she was “incredibly proud” of how they handled the challenges of discussing China’s human rights abuses, and other geopolitical issues, during the broadcasts. Specifically, China’s selection of an Uyghur athlete, Dinigeer Yilamujiang, to light the Olympic torch, was a shocking moment during the opening ceremony.
“Going in, we promised ourselves, and we thought it was essential for the viewers, to provide perspective on China’s complicated relationship with the rest of the world,” Solomon said. “Imagine in the moments when we found out that the cauldron lighter was from Xinjiang, and kudos to Mike Tirico and Savannah Guthrie, to frame that moment, to connect it to all the other perspective we had provided throughout that ceremony. That’s real-time television, a live opening ceremony, and I thought they did an extraordinary job of presenting that moment.”
Said Tirico, “I think we tried to make a very fine delineation between becoming a public affairs broadcast and how did it impact the Olympics, and certainly where we were and who was there mattered. That’s why Molly and Pete both thought it was really important that I was physically there for the opening ceremony, and I’m so glad I was. [Chinese President] Xi Jinping and [Russian President] Vladimir Putin were 25 yards away in the stadium. You could just get a sense of the history of the moment by being there.”
Tirico added, “We hopefully addressed the issues that mattered. It was an honor to share some of that, and I’m really proud that under Molly’s leadership, we got the go-ahead to tackle these issues and be straightforward and honest with our viewers. We wanted the comebacks. We wanted to be honest with them, and hopefully we did the right thing by them.”
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