NBC Declares Rio A 'Media' Success, Though TV Ratings Were Down

Aug 23, 2016
Originally published on August 23, 2016 2:50 pm

NBC had decidedly mixed results when it comes to ratings for its 17 days of coverage from the Summer Olympics in Rio.

According to figures released Monday, NBC drew an average total audience of 25.4 million viewers on its broadcast network in prime time, or 198 million people overall on TV.

Combine figures from broadcast, cable and online and the tally jumps to 27.5 million; enough to boost viewership for NBC programs like the Today show and NBC Nightly News while also bringing victories over network and cable TV competitors.

But those numbers weren't nearly as good as the ratings four years ago from the London Games, which drew an average 31.1 million viewers in prime time, according to an NBC release. Back then, the 2012 games were touted as the most watched TV event in U.S. history.

In fact, the average 27.5 million viewers drawn by the Rio Games were the first time the total audience went down from a previous Olympics since the contests in Sydney back in 2000, according to figures provided by NBC.

NBC tried to put a better spin on the ratings in its press release for the Rio Games, calling the Rio Olympics the most successful media event in history. That's because NBC this year broadcast 6,755 hours of programming on broadcast networks, online and over its NBC Sports app.

"Our planning production and presentation of the Rio games ... is the most impressive undertaking I've seen in the media world," NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus said in the release. "This is the most ambitious task in the media business, and our team ... all deserve a gold medal."

Multiple platforms

The NBC release is careful to note that the 2012 Olympics didn't feature live events online and on cable channels at the same time as the network's prime-time coverage. That situation was a first for this year's games, which meant NBC might have been competing with itself for viewers of live events on its many different platforms.

It is possible that online viewing had an impact on TV ratings. NBC says a total of 100 million unique users accessed the digital coverage for the Rio Games, a 29 percent increase from the London Games.

The NBC Sports app even provided notification messages to smartphones and tablets alerting users when important games were about to start. But NBC's release also says 95 percent of prime-time viewers watched the games on the network, indicating online use still had a tiny impact on the most important viewership.

As usual, NBC racked up lots of complaints for its coverage, including barbs about the number of commercials. Social media ensured that even casual viewers knew how many events turned out before they were broadcast.

And the dominance of superstar athletes like Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and American swimmer Michael Phelps created a string of near-certain victories that could have removed some of the suspense.

Whatever the reason, this year's Olympics failed to deliver ratings in the way NBC had hoped, raising questions about whether viewers still see the games as appointment television.

Given that NBC has paid billions to air the games through to 2032, this might be a serious problem indeed over time.

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And the Olympic Games may be over. But speculation over the cause of sagging TV ratings continues. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says NBC is trying hard to spin the numbers.

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ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: NBC has a bit of a problem when it comes to ratings for its 17 days of coverage of the Summer Olympics Games in Rio. It drew an average total audience of 25.4 million viewers on the broadcast network in prime time.

That's 198 million people overall on TV, which pushed their viewership far ahead of competing networks and cable channels. But those numbers pale in comparison to the last Summer Olympics in London. Those set a record as the most watched TV event in U.S. history. An average 31.1 million viewers watched the London Games in prime time, compared to Rio's 25.4 million.

In fact, the Rio ratings were the first time the TV audience declined from the previous Summer Olympics since the games in Sydney, Australia back in 2000. NBC tried to spin the ratings in a press release Monday, calling the Rio Olympics the most successful media event in history.

They cited the achievement of presenting more than 6,700 hours of programming across broadcast networks, cable channels, websites and the NBC Sports app. Those moments included Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt winning three gold medals in an unprecedented feat called a triple triple.

Though it's possible that TV ratings faltered a bit due to increased online viewing, NBC says 95 percent of its prime-time audience watched on the network. Other possible factors in the ratings drop include game results spread over social media, backlash from too many commercials in prime time and dominant athletes like Bolt, whose near-certain victories removed a lot of the suspense.

Whatever the reason, this year's Olympics failed to deliver ratings in the way NBC needed, raising questions about whether viewers still see the games as appointment television. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.