2020 Tokyo Olympics: How Opening Ceremony TV Ratings Compare to Rio Games in 2016

by Emily Morgan

NBC’s broadcast of the opening ceremony at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games saw 16.7 million viewers, the smallest audience in the U.S. for the Olympics in over 30 years.

According to NBCUniversal, across all platforms, including NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app, 17 million people watched the ceremony on Friday.

Viewership on Friday also declined 37 percent from 2016, when 26.5 million people watched the Rio de Janeiro Games opening ceremony. Additionally, it also fell 59 percent from 2012, when 40.7 million people watched the London ceremony.

Friday saw the lowest audience for the opening ceremony since the 1988 Seoul Games, which garnered 22.7 million viewers. More so, it had fewer views than the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, in which 21.6 million people watched.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Friday’s opening ceremony took place with less than 1,000 attendees at the Olympic Stadium due to strict social distancing rules. Significant absences from the event included former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and notable sponsors.

Additionally, some athletes weren’t present at the teams’ parade during the ceremony. The competitors must fly in just before their competitions and leave right after to mitigate infection. Since Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of America’s East Coast, for the first time, NBC broadcast the ceremony live at 6:55 a.m. ET.

2020 Olympics Kick off With Underwhelming Ratings

During its primetime coverage, the network noted the pandemic, trying to shine a positive light on the lack of fans at the Games.

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ said host Savannah Guthrie, co-anchor of the “Today” show. There’s nothing like an opening ceremony to really get you excited for the Olympic Games.”

NBCUniversal has tried to push its digital platforms, such as the Peacock streaming service, to gain more views.

NBC will air an “unprecedented” 7,000 hours of Olympic coverage across its multiple TV networks as well as Peacock. They will feature popular sports such as including gymnastics and U.S. Men’s basketball. Fans can also watch 5,500 hours of the Olympics on NBCOlympics.com and its sports app.

The drop in rating is an ongoing trend among live TV events, including awards shows and sports games. According to Nielsen data, during the Super Bowl in February, CBS saw an average of about 92 million viewers. These numbers were the Super Bowl’s lowest since 2006.

In April, the Oscars on ABC garnered 10.4 million, a record low, per Nielsen. Audiences for the most recent Emmys and Grammys also hit new lows in ratings.

NBCUniversal, which had paid $7.65 billion to extend its U.S. broadcast rights for the Olympic Games through 2032, is calling the games a “healing” event. However, the company has received skepticism from many Japanese citizens about holding a scaled-down Olympic Games during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the ratings, NBC is still walking away with an impressive chunk of change. NBCUniversal said it had signed 120 advertisers for the Olympics, more than any other Olympics broadcast. An NBCUniversal spokesperson also said that it was on track to exceed the $1.2 billion in ads sold for the 2016 Olympics.