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Tokyo 2020

US TV Viewership drops during Tokyo Olympics despite their massive contingent

A significant drop in TV viewership has American broadcaster NBC stunned.

Usain Bolt

The lack of big names such as Usain Bolt has had a huge impact on the ratings (Sources: Twitter)


Ananth Narasimman

Updated: 5 Aug 2021 10:18 AM GMT

We have been through so much over the last two years, and we sacrificed, either lost people along the way or heard of it, were locked up inside the comfort of our homes for quite a while due to the pandemic. Things are finally starting to shape up after two long years as we have countries slowly opening up. Sports is considered essential and is part of a person's lifestyle in most countries, helping them forget about things that cause stress and would normally weigh on their mind. In times like this, it is paramount that we need an outlet to relax as it is key to keep ourselves in good mental shape to deal with our morbid fears and the circumstances around us. Sports offers that outlet to most people, hence sports leagues and events around the world slowly started opening up. Putting immense pressure on some athletes to perform for our delight while putting aside their morbid fears and anxiety for us. Playing in a bubble is no mean feat as you are away from your support system in the middle of a crucial time.

The Olympics was no different, it started as a beacon of hope and a symbolic representation of the end of the global pandemic but quickly turned into disastrous ratings in countries like the United States, which have one of the largest contingents at the Olympics. What went wrong? was it a lack of support or unfortunate circumstances leading to the drop?
NBC peddled a narrative on the lines of hope, a massive victory for the human spirit after a tough year and a half, which tested our mental resolve, and our physical ability to bounce back and return to our everyday lives. The network paid the IOC a record $12 Billion to be the broadcast partner and televise the Games from 2014-2032.
"I really believe this is going to be the most meaningful Olympics of our lifetime. After everything the world has gone through, I do think that people are craving the shared experience. What better way to come together than through the stories of these athletes?" said NBC Olympics executive producer Molly Soloman during NBC's press conference leading up to the Olympics, reports The Washington Post.
Unfortunately, their strategy backfired due to the national emergency in Japan, which banned fans from going to stadiums. The move made a massive dent in the ratings as the fan reactions and crowd support plays a huge role in the viewing experience for the audience. The lack of crowd support also had athletes like Liz Cambagge pulling out of the games due to the additional pressure of playing in a bubble without fans. Star athletes like LeBron James also pulled out due to similar reasons after playing in a bubble-like scenario in the 2020 NBA finals.
NBC Universal's coverage of the Olympics was down by 43% to 17.5 million from 30.7 million viewers, compared to Rio, according to Sportico. Nielsen reported that there were 16.7 million viewers on NBC on July 23 for the opening ceremony, making this the smallest audience for the opening ceremony in 33 years. The statistics kept pouring in as the alarm bells were ringing in NBC's HQ. Unfortunately for them, this was a case of pure bad luck as apart from the narrative, they could not control the other outcomes and circumstances.
NBC overestimated America's interest and love towards the Olympics, as viewership was significantly down, with polls showing that the American citizens were less enthusiastic about the Games compared to the previous editions. Mental health and American athletes like Simone Biles taking a stand seemed to garner the most attention as citizens did not want their Olympians to go through the mental agony that they were going through.
Fanless atmospheres have not only had a huge impact on the athletes but the audience too as it strips down the emotional quotient of watching a game. Hearing thousands of fans screaming to cheer on their favourite team or star is truly incomparable to anything else in the world. Fortunately for most big sports like American Football and Basketball, they were able to garner viewership due to being ingrained in the American culture and the popularity of their leagues in the country.
"There is a lack of energy around a live event like the Olympics. Like we saw last year with covid in pro and college sports, viewership was down across the board. With a live event and the excitement around it, the live audience really does matter," said Chris Bevilacqua, a founder of Bevilacqua Helvant Ventures, a New York-based sports and media consulting firm, reports The Washington Post.
The lack of star power also had a huge role to play, the previous editions had massive names such as Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, LeBron James, Mo Farah and a lot more. The big names draw massive amounts of followers viewing the Games only to see them progress. The lack of recognizable names, along with ones like the legendary Simone Biles dropping out, also contributed to the drop in ratings as the fans could see the athletes struggle and wanted to stand in solidarity with them as they already have immense pressure on them from multiple angles.
The athlete's struggle was perfectly captured by Biles former teammate Laurie Hernandez during an interview on the Today Show. The host asked Hernandez, "Is there something that we, collectively as a society, that we don't understand about the plight of Olympic athletes in the United States of America?"
To which she answered by saying, "I'm glad to be asked that question. I do think that there is a thin layer of disconnect between Olympic athletes and kind of those who just don't play sports … When we have off days it feels awful. It feels like we're letting a lot of people down," reports The Washington Post.
The biggest factor would be the timing as most of the games are conducted in the mornings and evenings in Tokyo. This goes well into the night and early morning hours in the States, making it extremely difficult even for the ones who are enthusiastic.
These factors along with a couple of other internal decisions brewed together made up the perfect recipe for disaster as NBC were powerless to make proactive moves and increase their ratings.

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