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Through the first week of the Summer Olympics, NBCUniversal’s primetime audience has fallen precipitously — by almost 42 percent — compared to the last summer games in 2016. Given the way viewership linear TV has cratered in the past five years, however, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
In fact, the declines for the Olympics aren’t much different than those for broadcast TV as a whole over the past half decade.
Through seven nights, the Summer Olympics are averaging 17.5 million primetime viewers — including 19.5 million on Thursday, the second highest mark so far, for a night featuring taped coverage of Sunisa Lee’s gold medal in the women’s gymnastics all around. The primetime total includes NBC, several of NBCU’s cable outlets and streaming properties (NBCOlympics.com, the NBC Sports app and Peacock).
Over the same period in 2016, NBC’s coverage from Rio de Janeiro averaged a little more than 30 million viewers.
The 2016 Olympics had some built-in advantages: Rio is only an hour ahead of Eastern time in the United States, allowing for more live events to air in primetime. It also wasn’t conducted during a pandemic, which meant unlike the Tokyo games — already delayed a year due to COVID-19 — stadiums and arenas in Rio were full of cheering fans, which tends to make for a more enticing TV experience too.
Those factors, plus things like Simone Biles’ withdrawal from the women’s gymnastics competition, have all likely pushed NBCU’s numbers down. But the Olympics’ audience hasn’t shrunk any more than broadcast TV as a whole.
For the 2015-16 TV season, the average primetime network show averaged about 7.18 million viewers, including a week of delayed viewing. Thirty-five series (excluding sports pre- and post-game shows) averaged better than 10 million viewers.
In the just completed 2020-21 season, the average audience for a primetime network series was 4.4 million — a decline of 39 percent, only three points lower than the dip for the Olympics thus far. Only eight series broke the 10 million viewer mark for the season.
Where’d those viewers go? Well, five years ago, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu had between 40 and 50 active original series. HBO Max, Apple TV+ and Peacock didn’t exist yet; Paramount+ forerunner CBS All Access wouldn’t debut its first original series until 2017.
Now, streaming services have hosted premieres at least 47 series … in June and July alone. Scripted streaming series alone will likely count more than 200 before the year is out. That fact, coupled with millions of TV homes getting rid of traditional cable bundles in past half-decade, has shrunk the available audience.
A higher (though still small) percentage of viewers is also streaming its Olympics content in primetime. Streaming is up 19 percent vs. 2016, with users watching 2 billion minutes of coverage in the first week. Streaming viewers make up about 4 percent of the total primetime audience for the games so far.
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