NBC’s Ratings for Tokyo Games Were an All-Time Low for Summer Olympics

Despite the drop in viewers, the Tokyo Games were profitable

NBC logo at the Olympics. Ratings were severely down this year.
NBC's rating for the Olympics were not very good.
Amy Sussman/Getty Images

With a recent poll suggesting that U.S. adults were less interested in and watched less of the competition from Tokyo than they even anticipated, it really shouldn’t be a shock NBC’s ratings for the Summer Games were low.

What is surprising, especially considering how well Americans (particularly the women of Team USA) fared, is just how low they sank.

According to The Wall Street Journal,  an average of 15.5 million primetime TV viewers tuned in to the Tokyo Games over their 17-day run, the lowest audience for the Summer Olympics since NBC started broadcasting them in 1988 and a 42% decline from the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. The Rio Games averaged 26.7 million viewers, the 2012 London Olympics averaged 31.1 million viewers and the Beijing Games in 2008 averaged 27.2 million viewers.

Despite the drop in viewers, the Tokyo Games were still very profitable and NBC said ad sales exceeded the $1.2 billion in ad revenue that the 2016 Summer Games brought in for the network. “Our efforts have paid off with primetime coverage averaging nearly 16 million viewers per night,” NBC execs wrote in a Monday memo to employees. “While this number is lower than Rio, keep in mind that this is still a huge broadcast audience by today’s standards and we regularly doubled or tripled the combined viewership of the competition.”

Superstar Simone Biles missing a portion of the Games and the relative lack of success for the U.S. women on the soccer field were likely factors in the lack of interest, but the overall reason for the sharp viewership decline probably had to do with complications related to the pandemic.

“When you look at the numbers in general and the impact that COVID has had on sports, we were prepared for these numbers,” said NBC Sports chairman Pete Bevacqua told The Journal. “For better or worse, I really do believe the pandemic and postponement impacted these games.”

Advertisers felt that impact as well and some may seek discounted ads during Super Bowl LVI or the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics — both of which are set to air on NBC in February — to resolve contractual issues related to the low viewership of the Summer Games. The 2022 Winter Games start in less than six months and Beijing’s plans for pulling them off with COVID-19 cases once again on the rise remain largely unknown.

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