IOC does its best to spin low Olympic ratings

BEIJING — Ratings problem? What ratings problem?

Television ratings for the Beijing Olympics are off by 50 percent from PyeongChang levels in 2018, which themselves were well below the levels of Winter Olympics past. But to hear the International Olympic Committee tell it, there’s no problem, no problem at all.

According to IOC data, approximately half a billion people watched the Opening Ceremony around the world, and roughly 2 billion have watched some portion of the Olympics at some point in the succeeding week and a half.

In the United States, though, with the exception of the post-Super Bowl bump, ratings for the Games have bounced off the bottom of the ocean floor at historic lows. Just 16 million people tuned in for the Opening Ceremony, 43 percent below the 2018 Games in a similar time zone.

Pick a reason for the Olympics’ ratings dive, and it’s probably on point. Some would-be viewers are protesting the choice of China as a host nation for what the United States says are extensive human rights abuses. Others aren’t connecting with this crop of Olympians the way they did with, say, Michael Phelps or the Fierce Five. And the entire Olympics has a sterile feel, thanks to China’s “closed loop” system that’s keeping athletes, officials and media locked up and isolated and fans out of the stands. NBC’s morning shows and Olympics hosts can’t broadcast live from China because of the restrictions, further distancing the viewer from the action.

The most likely reason, though, is that this marks the third straight Olympics held literally on the other side of the planet from the United States, meaning the most compelling events are occurring in the middle of the night, U.S. time.

“We’re in our third games in Asia now, and I think the audiences are getting quite used to watching their Olympic sport at different times, so actually the audiences on linear TV have been strong,” Timo Lumme, the IOC’s managing director for television and marketing services, said on Wednesday. “In certain Nordic or winter markets they have been extremely strong. In general, they have held up very well despite the time difference and lack of live, prime-time coverage.”

Nordic markets may be tuning in to watch their Olympians dust the world in the Winter Games, but beyond that, the idea that Western audiences appreciate the off-hours Olympics defies common sense. Audiences are getting used to watching their Olympics in the middle of the night because, aside from Rio in 2016, it’s what they’ve had to do for literally the last decade.

Still, Lumme hit on one important point: Virtually every television property is seeing massive declines all across the board. The Olympics’ ratings are down, but so is almost everyone else (except the NFL).

“Media markets change and they change continually,” he noted. “It is true we’ve lived through a period of relative stability and growth but the reality is that over history, media markets change when there are new technologies and new ways to consume media. We of course don’t control that. We do notice that the Olympics maintain a position of pre-eminence and dominance within the available market share.”

Translating from network-speak: The Olympics are still claiming the largest share of a much smaller pie.

A staff member looks at screens in a Master Control Room (MCR) of the Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) in International Broadcast Centre (IBC) in Beijing on February 11, 2022 during the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP) (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images)
A staff member looks at screens in a Master Control Room (MCR) of the Olympic Broadcasting Services. Ratings for the Beijing Olympics have dipped dramatically in the United States. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images)

The Olympics and NBC have enjoyed a mutually beneficial partnership, one that will extend through the 2032 Summer Games. Beyond that? It’s tough to speculate whether NBC will continue its partnership, as the lure of the 2034 Games — widely rumored to be headed for Salt Lake City — would be an appealing proposition for a U.S. broadcaster.

“At the end of the day,” Lumme said, sidestepping a question about the future of the NBC deal, “what will drive a decision for us are the best market conditions. We’re in no hurry. There’s no decision that needs to be made immediately.”

The Beijing 2022 ratings will be at historic lows. The challenge for the IOC is how to recapture the trust and interest of the millions who have tuned out over the past few years.