An average of 11.4 million spectators watched the Beijing Olympics on NBCUniversal platforms every night – the smallest prime-time audience on record for any Winter Games and a far cry from 19.8 million viewers every night for the Pyeongchang Games in 2018.
NBC Worldwide said Monday that more than two weeks of coverage, starting with the cold opening show on February 4 and ending on Sunday, has drawn 160 million viewers across NBC television, the streaming service Peacock and other platforms.
Dramatic story lines proliferated during NBCUniversal’s 2,800 hours of coverage, but few catered to an audience that might have craved reality-escaping forays and tales of triumph. Epidemiological restrictions have forced competitions to take place in a bubble. The result: booths are mostly empty, and NBC anchors like Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski have to turn in their dispatches from a Connecticut compound.
Many memorable episodes lacked the uplifting and inspirational qualities that popular Olympic broadcasts make. Michaela Shiffrin, an American skater who won three Olympic medals before arriving in Beijing, stumbled disastrously in several events and came home empty-handed. Camila Valeeva, a 15-year-old Russian figure skating star, broke down while free skating while surviving a doping scandal. When she got off the ice, her coach scolded her on camera.
Geopolitical tensions also ravaged the Olympic Games. China has tried to dismantle political games using bots and fake accounts. Concern about the well-being of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who was accused last year of a political official of sexual assault, threatened to overshadow the Games.
“The Olympic brand is really struggling. A lot of people no longer feel that emotional connection,” said Tang Tang, a media professor at Kent State University who has studied the Olympics.
The Beijing Olympics lacked the kind of strong narrative that turned American swimmer Michael Phelps and his eight gold medals into must-watch TV in 2008. One of the superstars at this year’s Games, Chinese American figure skater Eileen Gu, competed for China instead. from the United States. And players in the National Hockey League did not participate.
“The public watches the Olympics for stories. They need that superhero story, that star quality,” Professor Tang said. “They don’t really see the Olympics as a real sporting event, they see it as something more personal.”
In 2014, NBCUniversal bought the US rights to broadcast the Olympics through 2032 for $7.75 billion. But the Beijing Olympics, and the one in Tokyo six months ago, were logistically difficult. The Tokyo Olympics attracted the smallest audience since NBCUniversal began covering the Summer Games in 1988.
In Beijing, NBCUniversal is grappling with a 13-hour time difference from New York, which means social media and news reports usually deliver Olympic results long before viewers watch the broadcast. The company said this year’s Olympics were the most-streamed Winter Games ever, with 4.3 billion minutes broadcast across digital and social media.
Long before this month, NBCUniversal asked advertisers to expect lower ratings for the Beijing Games than the Pyeongchang event. The company said Monday that its coverage in Beijing topped everything other than the NFL’s primetime television
The biggest game night of the year was on February 13, when it was watched by 24 million people, many of whom likely came from NBCUniversal’s Super Bowl broadcast. The football match attracted 112 million viewers, or 70% of the total viewers who watched the Olympics over a period of more than two weeks.