How do we truly interpret the Tokyo Olympic ratings?

Prof Andrew C. Billings

University of Alabama (USA) is the Ronald Reagan Chair of Broadcasting and Executive Director of the Alabama Program in Sports Communication. He is the author of Olympic Media: Inside the Biggest Show on Television (Routledge, 2008) and the co-author of Olympic Television: Broadcasting the Biggest Show on Earth (Routledge, 2018).

Twitter: @andrewcbillings 

Section 2: Media Coverage & Representation

Desiderius Erasmus once opined: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” If ever there were the embodiment of a one-eyed man in modern media, the Olympic broadcast would be it. The 2021 NBC broadcast of Tokyo 2020 was lamented as a major disappointment and, by any other recent benchmark, that sentiment could be corroborated, as ratings plunged 52.4% from the Rio 2016 Games. Still, the ratings more than tripled the next highest-rated program offered during the time period, and NBC often outperformed the next eight highest-rated channels combined. The Opening Ceremonies drew virtually the same ratings as Oprah’s televised chat with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, yet the ratings for the Olympics (17 million) “sucked so bad” while the ratings for the Harry and Meghan interview (17.1 million) were hailed as a “staggering…cultural earthquake.” Ratings dipped slightly (to 15.5 million) for the entire Games, yet it’s useful to note that these encompassed over 60 hours of primetime; Harry and Meghan’s interview? Just one. 

Many reasons pervaded for why such a drop in ratings could be justified, including the lingering pandemic, troubling time zones, and the general fragmentation of modern television via streaming options. However, such ratings signal larger realities as media continues to transform. Some of the realities are more specific to the U.S., but others harken at global changes. Those include: 

The uses and gratifications problem. Unlike a Netflix, HBO Max, or Apple+ program that is released and then can be consumed in any manner at any time on any device (as long as you’re a subscriber), megasporting events function differently. Most sports fans want to watch a contest as it unfolds live, but also wish for it to be offered at an ideal time–preferably right after dinner. This proves to be an impossible prospect in most cases where events occur outside one’s home continent, particularly for a global event like the Olympics. 

Live sports is still the magic bullet for the streaming wars. When FOX debuted as a network in the 1980s, it had many buzzworthy programs (including, but not limited to, “The Simpsons”). But what led to the emergence of nationwide FOX affiliates was the securing of NFL broadcast rights in 1993. The same is likely to happen in the streaming world. Plentiful reasons exist for this, but think of it this way: when Amazon starts streaming Thursday Night Football games exclusively in 2022, it will not only add value to its Prime subscription, but will also reap the advertising benefits. For scripted programming, the majority of viewers now skip commercials or have a streaming service that deletes them from the start. Live sports? That percentage of skipped commercials drops to the low single digits.  

The HBO model is the future. Since its inception and for decades, HBO has been built on an advertiser-free model, which largely equates to a ratings-free model. Sure, HBO would like you to regularly consume their content as it cements their role as a central part of a viewer’s media diet. However, all they really needed was one program that people couldn’t live without. Over the years, that might have been The Sopranos, Sex and the CityReal Time with Bill Maher, or Game of Thrones. As long as you’re THAT interested in a show that you’re willing to spend the $15 per month for HBO’s product, the company is set. Transition to the sports world and you see a streaming opportunity in the form of a magic bullet: a decent share of sports fans consider key games to be the must-see programming. Thus, streaming companies can take advantage of this while building their scripted content libraries; after all, if the key game is only available on a single streaming service, many will pay the fee only for that game, even if they have little interest in anything else the service offers. The same is certainly true for hard-core Olympic fans, of which they are legion. 

And that leaves us at an intriguing crossroads post-Tokyo. The Olympics remain the biggest show on television, even if half the size they originally were. Paris will present a more North American-friendly time zone in 2024 while (hopefully) filling the stands in a post-pandemic context. The re-emergence of Olympic media narratives will resume, even if the real game is no longer about evening ratings. Ratings still matter, but they represent the battle. Streaming represents the war.