NBCUniversal’s primetime coverage of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games averaged 15.5 million viewers per night across all linear TV and digital platforms, making it the least-watched Olympics in the modern Nielsen era. And while the spectator-free event still managed to put up numbers that dwarfed pretty much everything else on the dial this side of the NFL, the weaker-than-expected deliveries suggest that streaming isn’t clawing back a huge chunk of the vanishing TV impressions.
The losses on the TV side of the ledger were more severe than anyone may have expected heading into the Summer Games, which were delayed a full year by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tokyo deliveries, which include impressions served up via the broadcast flagship NBC, as well as a clutch of cable networks and streaming services, were down 45% compared to the 2016 Rio Games (27.5 million viewers) and fell 22% from the temporally-apposite 2018 Winter Olympics staged in Pyeongchang, South Korea (19.8 million viewers).
Per classical precedent, NBCU salted away reserve ad inventory to be used either as ADUs (industry lingo for “audience deficiency units”) or, in the event of a ratings bonanza, scatter bait. The TV turnout for the 2012 London Games was so robust that NBC would book on the order of $200 million in bonus sales over the course of the event. This time around, the pendulum swung back the other way, and while NBC execs said they were able to make nearly all of their Olympics clients whole within the Games themselves, a few deep-pocketed clients are said to be negotiating for makegoods in Sunday Night Football and the 2022 Beijing Games.
Media buyers with skin in the game have said that NBC’s larger roster of clients effectively saved the company from having to make up for the usual horde of Olympian ad budgets. With more than 120 advertisers in the mix, there were far fewer individual budgets of $100,000+ to sort out, which helped reduce NBC’s future ADU load. That said, the company is expected to take great pains to smooth things over for the likes of Toyota, which was not only one of the top spenders in Tokyo, but is Sunday Night Football’s biggest in-game advertiser and the title sponsor of NBC’s halftime show.
While NBC will broadcast Super Bowl LVI in February, it is unlikely that the network will offer time in the Big Game as a make-good concession. Perhaps the only time in not-so-recent memory that a network elected to hand over a Super Bowl freebie was way back in 1992, when a technical glitch interrupted one of Budweiser’s eight spots. After a phone call from a perplexed August Busch III alerted the CBS ad sales chief to the problem, the network carved out an instant makegood for Bud, in what amounted to the first isolated 30-second commercial to air in a Super Bowl—and the only complimentary in-game spot.
NBCU won’t be releasing an exact figure for its Tokyo ad sales haul, saying only that it took in more sponsor cash than it did in Rio ($1.2 billion). In June, the sales team said it had secured more than $1.25 billion in national Olympics inventory, which is more or less where things stood back in March 2020, when the Tokyo Games were called off.
NBC Sports chairman Pete Bevacqua said the company still expected to turn a profit on Tokyo, “despite being thrown a series of curveballs over the last 18 months.” Per terms of the deal Comcast struck with the International Olympic Committee in 2011, the rights fee for the Tokyo Games is $1.45 billion.
Comcast hasn’t broken out the number of sports fans who over the course of the Olympics signed up for its streaming service, Peacock. Speaking on the company’s July 29 earnings call, on the seventh day of NBC’s Olympics coverage, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts told analysts that Peacock through the end of the second quarter had notched 54 million sign-ups in the U.S., of which 20 million are active accounts.
During the same call, NBCU CEO Jeff Shell noted that Tokyo marked a big test for Peacock, in terms of gathering information on how fans are consuming the Games. “We’ve had some bad luck. But if you look at the product, it’s fantastic,” Shell said. “With Peacock, what we will learn in this Olympics, we will take with us to Beijing.”
One takeaway that everyone in sports media should ponder is how little streaming seems to have contributed to NBCU’s overall deliveries. While the company said it clocked nearly 6 billion streaming minutes across digital and social media, that accounted for just 5% of its 120 billion minutes of overall consumption. When considered in terms of the average-minute audience against which Nielsen measures its TV ratings, the streaming impressions worked out to around 477,000 per night, or 3% of NBCU’s average deliveries via its broadcast and cable networks.
NBC alone during the Olympics averaged 12.7 million primetime viewers, or about half what the network averaged during its presentation of the Rio Games. And while that’s still a considerable audience in this era of hyper accelerated fragmentation—on some nights during the Tokyo Olympics, there were 30 million fewer people watching TV than was the case during the analogous period in 2016—the fact that streaming isn’t making up for a big chunk of the missing fanbase may be a sign that younger consumers simply aren’t anywhere near as interested in the Games (or passive sports-viewing as a whole) as are their parents and grandparents.
Or perhaps, as William Gibson has observed, the future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed. In any case, the massive TV declines seem to have shocked even NBC. In June, Dan Lovinger, executive VP of ad sales for NBC Sports, told reporters that his team hoped to exceed the Rio average, while promising that Tokyo would be “far and away the biggest media event of the year.”
Lovinger’s assessment of the overall scope of the event wasn’t too far off the mark—when all is said and done, at least 12 Olympics nights will stand among the 100 most-watched broadcasts of 2021, and that billion-plus in ad sales is nothing to sneeze at—but one pre-Tokyo prediction suggests that the ratings plunge was far worse than anyone at 30 Rock had anticipated. When asked in June what sort of reach figure he was shooting for, Lovinger said, “We will exceed 200 million total viewers.” Per NBC’s reckoning, Tokyo missed the mark by as many as 50 million viewers, or a good 25% shy of what Lovinger had forecast.
(This story has corrected the total number of streaming minutes to 120 billion, not 120 million, in the tenth paragraph.)