NBC faces a cataclysmic viewership loss for the 2022 Winter Olympics as viewership plummets for Friday’s opening ceremony, averaging just 16 million.
This is a record for the opening ceremony (20.1 million for 1988 in Calgary was the previous record) and a whopping 43% below the 2018 Games in South Korea which drew 28.3 million viewers despite a less than advantageous Asian time zone for American audiences.
This follows Thursday’s ratings disaster which saw just 7.7 million people tune in, significantly below the same-night ratings of 2018 (16 million) and 2014 from Russia (20. 02 million).
NBC said the 16 million is “total viewership delivery” and includes all of its networks and streaming. The average television-only viewership was less than 14 million for the day, according to preliminary data released by the network.
While ratings tend to rise in the first week as more viewers get caught up in the action, NBC will have to work on a ratings hole.
The host country, China, is a serious problem.
Many countries, including the United States, are organizing a “diplomatic boycott” of these Games because of what they say is China’s active campaign of genocide against the Uyghurs, a majority Muslim ethnic minority group in the extreme northwest of the country.
China denies the accusation but has also barred United Nations human rights officials from entering the area.
In matters more directly related to the Games, China’s drastic anti-COVID measures have made life inside its “closed loop” a very stressful and almost joyless experience for athletes and a huge challenge for NBC. .
Athletes have complained of fear of positive tests, substandard conditions in unnecessary ‘isolation centres’ and the need to guard against China’s hacking of their phones and computers to extract data and steal identities.
Friday’s opening ceremony of the famous Bird’s Nest in Beijing was cut short (just over two hours) and packed with politics and propaganda, including a speech by International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach which might as well have been written by the Chinese communist Party.
While the use of a massive floor-mounted LED screen produced impressive visuals, it was far from the expansive, welcoming, festive and over-the-top spectacle that China provided to open the 2008 Summer Games.
It ended with China using cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang, who state media says has Uyghur heritage, as one of the lighters in the cauldron. It was a clear opposition to the genocide claims – see, look at that smiling, famous Uyghur.
It was a disturbing and disheartening moment, a young athlete and an iconic moment in any Olympics used as a propaganda prop to cover up a campaign of slavery, torture, forced abortions and internment in re-education camps. It did nothing to create good feelings towards the competition.
As such, rather than a celebration, it feels and feels like a hubbub of hardship, isolation and suspicion.
The lack of fans in attendance doesn’t help either. Thursday’s ice skating competition was surreal, a performative event where the connection between the competitor and the crowd is paramount. Instead, with only 800 people in attendance, it felt like a practice session, with music blaring through the poor acoustics of the facility.
Then there is a measure of “Olympic fatigue”. These Games come less than six months after the COVID-delayed Tokyo Summer Olympics, which themselves struggled to attract audiences (an average nightly audience of just 15.5 million).
This is all a nightmare for NBC, which is paying the IOC $7.75 billion to broadcast the Olympics until 2032.
NBC is doing almost everything it can, but its reporters and staff are stuck in the “closed loop.” This eliminates live action shots with mountains or historic buildings as backdrops as well as stories about China’s culture, architecture and people that can make the Olympics so much more than sports.
Host Mike Tirico broadcast from a set designed like a mountain lodge, but it could have been in Breckenridge, not Beijing. And Tirico, the face of the show, will depart in the coming days to anchor NBC’s Super Bowl coverage, which due to the extended NFL season has spilled over into the Olympic calendar and has further diverted outside media interest and coverage.
Meanwhile, most of NBC’s play-by-play broadcasters are calling the Games remotely from studios in Connecticut rather than risk China’s COVID policies.
While this may be virtually indistinguishable to the viewer, it means the network cannot air the “Today Show” and its “Nightly News” live from the city for additional promotion. There are no segments with Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, for example, shopping in Beijing. Or Al Roker trying to sled. Or whatever.
Everything adds up.
And right now it’s eluding fewer and fewer viewers, who have so far had too many other options than to tune in to a passionless, fanless, and overly political event from a country trying to use the Olympics to ward off the horrors that occur within its borders.
For the IOC, it’s great. So far, the American viewer is less receptive.