When NBC made an 18-year, $7.75 billion investment in the Olympics back in 2014, all conceivable metrics indicated that the deal was a slam-dunk. Entertainment consumption was moving towards digital subscriptions quickly; and networks needed live, unscripted content to woo advertisers away from spending their money on podcast spots or YouTube videos. Live sports quickly became the hottest property of them all. And soon, massive bidding wars began for all the major leagues, with the Olympics seen as a special tier of prestige above and beyond the rest.
Just eight years later, though, as the Beijing Winter Olympics come to a close, that massive investment suddenly looks shaky, if not downright sloppy. The Winter Games were a public relations nightmare for NBC: only the worst aspects of the sports went viral, and the network had to play nice with a country facing increased scrutiny for their blatant human rights violations. The events happened a dozen time zones away, meaning that fans could read about results hours before NBC aired them. And the enduring images will be of drug-tainted Russian figure skaters crying and Mikaela Shiffrin sitting helplessly on a ski slope after a series of disappointing outings.
Luckily, humans have short memories, and in a few years when the Games grace more consumer-friendly cities like Paris and Los Angeles, all may be forgiven. But for now, NBC must find ways to mitigate the damage and cope with the blunders. Because exiting the deal would require hefty legal fees and fines.
“Given the investment, they’ve got to be disappointed right now,” said Andrew Billings. Billings is the director of the sports communications program at the University of Alabama.
NBC will look to strengthen the Olympics brand in coming years
One thing NBC can look forward to is a sports world with hopefully less COVID restrictions. Athletes’ families in the stands, local media telling quirky stories, and more access to athletes all make the Games much more riveting to fans. The last two games — Tokyo and then Beijing — basically existed in hermetically-sealed bubbles; the result was lackluster interest and mediocre ratings.
“Certainly the host city is one of the great supporting actors in every Olympics,” NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel said. “It’s the culture, the people, even the sponsor activations. People from all over the world come together and that is not happening (in Beijing). And there’s no way for us to try to translate something like that.”
Through Tuesday, about 12.2 million people watched the Olympics in prime-time on NBC, cable or the Peacock streaming service. That’s down 42 percent from the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. The average for NBC alone was 10 million — a 47 percent drop, the Nielsen company said.
NBC Sports chairman Pete Bevacqua said the network needs to rebuild the tarnished brand over the next few years.
“I think we in many ways have to work internally with the IOC with the USOPC to rejuvenate the Games coming out of Tokyo and Beijing in preparation for Paris, Italy, and LA. That is going to be a strategic priority of ours.”