NBCUniversal’s Olympics ratings are in sync with what the media giant said it would serve up to its advertisers, and while precedent would suggest that the deliveries will trend downward as the Beijing Games head into their second week, a post-Super Bowl lift could help stave off a rush on make-goods in the home stretch.
Through the sixth day of NBCU’s coverage of the Winter Olympics—a stretch that includes last Friday’s Opening Ceremony but leaves off the “bonus night” of action that preceded the parade of nations—the event is averaging 12.4 million viewers across linear TV and streaming services. That’s down a half versus the 24.7 million viewers NBCU reached during the analogous segment of the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. While the drop is decidedly sharp, the turnout is high enough to satisfy NBC’s early ratings guarantees.
According to media buyers, NBC’s target for Beijing is an average delivery of around 11.5 million viewers over its 16 nights of Olympics coverage, which means that the company thus far isn’t on the hook for any audience deficiency units. And while that’s good news for NBC and its advertisers, it’s likely that the network will have to dip into its inventory reserves in order to make up for the shortfall that’s almost sure to come as the games progress.
Historically, the first four nights of Olympics action tend to put up the highest numbers, with impressions falling significantly as the games head into the second weekend. NBC hopes the first-ever convergence of its Super Bowl and Olympics coverage will mitigate the usual declines, but given how Beijing is trending, the emergency fund of ad time it has set aside isn’t expected to make it to the scatter market. That said, the reserves should be sufficient to make each of NBC’s advertisers whole, which is why the inventory was salted away in the first place.
Make-goods are not an admission of defeat, regardless of what you may read in the trades. If TV advertising has a Golden Rule, it is this: Better to price your inventory slightly higher than the expected outcome might otherwise justify, rather than leave money on the table by selling at a discount.
NBC Sports Group chairman Pete Bevacqua on Thursday effectively echoed what ad agency execs have been saying about the Beijing deliveries. “The ratings…are about where we thought they would be in terms of our estimates,” Bevacqua told reporters during NBC’s Thursday media call. “We had a strong weekend. It appears that last night is going to be a very strong night for us in terms of where our estimate was.”
Per Wednesday’s “Total Audience Delivery” data, NBCU’s TV and digital outlets averaged 12 million viewers during Night 6. With an average draw of 11.4 million viewers across NBC, USA Network and MSNBC, the linear TV numbers were already well within range of the target deliveries, while Peacock and NBCU’s other streaming platforms added around 600,000 impressions to Wednesday’s tally.
As Bevacqua noted, not only is NBC dealing with the ongoing erosion of the American TV audience—in the last two years alone, primetime usage has fallen by 20%—but it must also contend with a never-ending global health crisis, the dispiriting visuals served up by Beijing’s near-empty venues and what amounts to simple Olympics fatigue.
“We’re holding these Games during a pandemic, [and] we’ve had two Olympics within six months of one another,” Bevacqua said, adding that the conditions in Beijing have made for a literal buzzkill. “It’s no secret that…those great moments of Olympic athletes hugging their family and friends and spouses and partners, so much of that magic is just out of necessity not present.”
That said, Bevacqua believes the games will bounce back as they shift westward, with the 2024 Summer Olympics set to take place in Paris and the 2026 Winter Games to land in Italy. More to the point, home-field advantage should hold sway when the event returns to Los Angeles in the summer of 2028. Despite the Russian boycott—payback for America’s decision to sit out the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow—the first week of the 1984 L.A. Games served up a staggering 25.2 household rating, which works out to some 21 million homes per night. Per Nielsen, 45% of TVs in use in the United States at the time were tuned to ABC.
Bevacqua said he’s keeping his fingers crossed that COVID will have crawled back into the hole from whence it came by the time NBC has to break out “La Marseillaise” and the hon hon hon. “Knock on wood, not just for the Olympics, but for the sake of all of us, hopefully this pandemic is well beyond us by then,” Bevacqua said. “We have our eye on that normalized future coming back into focus as we work our way through this pandemic, so that’s why we’re hopeful.”
As for the here and now, NBC is on track to serve up the least-watched Winter Olympics in history. Beijing will fall well shy of the previous low-water mark set in Pyeongchang four years ago, when NBCU’s coverage averaged 19.8 million viewers. The NBC broadcast flagship has taken much of the ratings flak, averaging just 9.75 million Olympics viewers per night, down 55% compared to the analogous six-night stretch in 2018.
Nothing about how the numbers are shaking out has been a surprise to anyone who hasn’t spent the last 10 years locked up in the dissident wing of Qincheng Prison. “Of course we always want to have the ratings better,” Bevacqua said. “But the ratings for these games, as I said, are about where we thought they’d be.
“Obviously, the linear ratings are down across the board, but we have been satisfied in terms of what we expected, and we also have been very pleased with the performance of Peacock and the streaming numbers have really been off the charts.”