The 2022 Winter Olympics was less an unforeseen disaster for NBC than something that, almost by design, was fated to be forgotten even while it was happening. That the Beijing Games now has the unhappy distinction of being the least-watched Olympics on the books is nothing anyone at 30 Rock cares to dwell on, but the results by no means came as a shock to the network suits or the sponsors who backed the event.
NBC almost certainly did not make a profit on these Winter Olympics—as of last night’s primetime replay of the closing ceremonies, NBC had yet to provide guidance either way, an uncharacteristic silence which translates to a resounding nope—although making money on the event is never a given. The last two Olympics that aired on NBC prior to Comcast’s acquisition of the company—Beijing 2008 and Vancouver 2010—failed to recoup their combined $1.7 billion rights fee, and the massively popular 2012 London Games just about broke even, despite an ad sales haul of $1.25 billion.
Because NBC’s ad sales team deftly played the hand it was dealt, pricing its primetime inventory at a discount while offering correspondingly lower-than-usual performance guarantees, the network was able to at once manage and satisfy its clients’ expectations. Depending on the size of an advertiser’s overall commitment, primetime units could be had for as much as $200,000 less than the average 30-second spot went for in 2018.
A 17% increase in overall Olympics coverage—NBC’s Beijing slate beat out its Pyeongchang lineup by some 400 hours, thanks in large part to Peacock’s expanded streaming offerings—and growth in social-media sales likely went some way toward offsetting the impact of the slashed ad rates. That said, a more precise read on how NBC fared in China may not be unearthed until late April, when parent company Comcast is expected to file its first-quarter earnings results.
On the day of the 2018 closing ceremonies, then-NBC Broadcasting and Sports chairman Mark Lazarus said the Pyeongchang Games had generated “more than $920 million in national ad sales.” Two months later, Comcast’s 10-K report indicated that the Winter Olympics had generated $1.15 million in total revenue, with $770 million landing at NBC’s broadcast flagship and another $378 million at the cable networks unit. (In the same document, Comcast said NBC’s broadcast of Super Bowl LII had booked $423 million in revenue.)
Given the steep rise in the Olympics rights fees, the likelihood of NBC sauntering out of Beijing with a few extra bucks in its pocket is up there with Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding joining forces to revive the Ice Capades. When NBC renewed its contract through the 2032 Summer Games, Comcast plunked down $7.75 billion, and while the cost of each individual event has not been disclosed, historical precedent would put the price of carrying these Winter Olympics somewhere around $975 million.
Even with the savings that came with keeping the majority of the staff back home in Stamford, Conn.—only 600 production, engineering and operations workers made it to China, a far cry from the 2,000 employees that were on the ground in Pyeongchang—Beijing was all but destined to break NBC’s money-making streak. The sense of resignation was hard to miss; NBC Sports Group chairman Pete Bevacqua earlier this month acknowledged the difficulty of staging two COVID-stunted Olympics in a half-year window.
“We’re holding these Games during a pandemic, [and] we’ve had two Olympics within six months of one another,” Bevacqua said on Feb. 10, before noting that the empty venues in Beijing made for a rather dispiriting backdrop for the various athletic competitions. “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.”
Not helping matters was the dystopian vibe that comes from attempting to showcase the “Olympic spirit” and global solidarity in a place where people are regularly ground under the boot of techno-totalitarianism. (For a more human-scale representation of what it looks like when the State turns dreams into despair and hope into hamburger, go back and re-watch the Black Mirror episode that was the women’s figure skating event. Sacré bleu!)
NBC’s Olympics anchor Mike Tirico addressed the 800-pound panda bear in the room during Sunday’s closing ceremonies, saying that while the Winter Games had proceeded without an international incident, the atmosphere in Beijing had been predictably oppressive. “These Games have made it to the finish line, though no one would deny the shadow that China’s place in the world—and a world that seems to be more troubled and complicated by the day—cast over the competition,” Tirico said. “It’s fair to question how we’re going to look back at these Games months, maybe years, into the future. Fair to question whether they should have been held here, and what they did and did not achieve.”
In all likelihood, very few of the tens of millions of viewers who watched the Beijing Olympics will have much cause to think about it at all, and the Games’ westering tendencies—they head to Paris in 2024, followed by a spell in Milan two years later, before splashing down in Los Angeles in 2028—should go a long way toward burying any residual memories of China’s cheerless spectacle.
After all, the Olympics have managed to survive two World Wars, the Great Depression, the 1972 Black September murders and an extended period of Cold War jockeying that blighted two consecutive Summer Games. The Beijing Olympics were far from ideal, but collective amnesia will make short work of whatever it was that happened there, even if such forgetfulness won’t make up for NBC’s revenue shortfall. It could’ve been a lot worse, which is probably what Fox execs will be saying to themselves this December as they jet out of Qatar.
“The Olympics have always been imperfect, and maybe more so now than ever before,” Tirico said Sunday, by way of putting a bow on Beijing. “There are real challenges ahead for this movement. But nothing else brings the world together like this. … With troops amassing and militaries maneuvering, these 18 nights again reminded us of the power of sport, the power of people, and the power of the Games to galvanize.
“So, as we formally say goodbye to these Olympics, we’ll spend every one of the next 887 days hoping that scene on the Seine to open the 2024 Summer Games will be the start of something special.”