If history is any guide, Twitter should begin erupting with complaints about NBC’s Olympics ad loads early during Friday’s opening ceremonies, perhaps between the moment the 60 members of the Austrian contingent give way to the 44 athletes from Azerbaijan. And while the deluge of marketing messages may certainly seem oppressive to younger viewers who’ve come up in an ad-averse, everything-on-demand universe, the volume of breaks in the Tokyo Games isn’t likely to be any more onerous than the standard broadcast load.
According to a Kantar Media analysis of NBC’s coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympics, the network averaged a primetime ad load of just over 16 minutes in Rio, which is consistent with standard broadcast commercial levels. Of that time spent away from the action, 12 minutes and 21 seconds of each hour were devoted to paid ads and in-house promos, while ads purchased through the local affiliates accounted for 3 minutes and 41 seconds of the breaks.
While NBC’s break structure was more or less consistent throughout the bulk of its broadcast day, there was some variance to be found during post-prime (from 11 p.m. til midnight on the East Coast) and in late night. The final hour of each day featured just 7 minutes and 17 seconds of total ad time, split almost equally between national and local advertisers. The revenue machine jolted back to life again in the overnight hours, as NBC maxed out at 15 minutes and 38 seconds of total commercial time, of which nearly 13 minutes were given over to national spots and promos.
All told, NBC’s Rio broadcasts averaged 14 hours and 17 seconds of ad time per hour, and while the loads were slightly elevated compared to the 2012 London Olympics, they didn’t deviate from network TV’s typical freight of between 15 and 16 minutes of ads in every 60-minute programming window. Moreover, the NBCUniversal cable channels featured fewer ads, with hourly allotments ranging from 9 minutes and 22 seconds on NBCSN to a hair over 11 minutes on CNBC.
The lighter cable loads are in keeping with NBCU’s ongoing efforts to reduce clutter. In the first quarter of 2021, the company boasted the lowest cable spot load in the industry, with an average run of 11 minutes and 36 seconds of commercial time per hour. At the high end of the scale, A&E Networks in the same period aired 14 minutes and 24 seconds of commercials and in-house promos per hour, while the overall cable average worked out to 13 minutes and 18 seconds.
At least some of the online beefing about the 2016 Olympic sponsor interruptions may have been a function of NBC’s decision to incorporate more frequent, but shorter, ad breaks. On average, the networks ran eight breaks per hour, up from six in London, while the interruptions across the broadcast and cable networks remained almost identical from one year to another. Together, the nine channels programmed an average of 15 minutes and 37 seconds per hour of commercial time, a mere second off the London average.
While NBC missed its ratings targets in 2016—over the first two weeks the network averaged a 16.0 household rating, two full ratings points shy of the 18.0 it had guaranteed advertisers in the run-up to Rio—it satisfied the bulk of its shortfall within the Games themselves. And despite having to fork over freebies, NBC and its cable network siblings unleashed an absolutely ferocious barrage of in-house promos. According to iSpot.tv data, NBCU aired no fewer than 3,066 in-house plugs during the first 12 days of its 2016 Olympics coverage, a promotional blitz that included 364 primetime spots. Teasers for programming on the broadcast network alone aired 1,490 times, of which 231, or 16%, ran in primetime.
Viewers can expect a similar mix of spots during the Tokyo Games. In other words, along with the inevitable barrage of paid ads for Procter & Gamble products, Visa and Toyota—and no, the automaker has not suspended its Olympics buys here in the U.S., nor has any other brand—you’re also likely to get your fill of teasers for fall NBC series like the new disaster thriller La Brea, the James Wolk vehicle Ordinary Joe and the six weekly hours of Dick Wolf procedurals.
In the weeks leading up to Tokyo, the NBC networks have aired $50 million in promos for the Games, per iSpot estimates.
If nothing else, the variety of commercial spots may go a long way toward alleviating the repetition that makes such a chore of ad-supported TV. NBC has nailed down at least 120 different advertisers for its Tokyo Olympics coverage, which marks a 20% increase from the number of brands who ponied up for time in the Rio Games.
Of course, if you spend enough time with the NBCU networks over the course of the 17-day event, a little commercial fatigue is inevitable. Such is the cost of supporting the Olympic movement … and honoring the social contract. Look, Comcast in 2011 agreed to fork over $4.38 billion for the U.S. rights to the 2014 to 2020 Olympics, and the $1.25 billion in advertising it expects to have raked in by the close of this year’s make-up Games will defray much of the cost of carrying the event. The least you could do in exchange for all that action is buy some aspirin or a hatchback.