2020 Tokyo Olympics: NBC Ratings Improve After Dismal Start, Still Nowhere Near 2016 Games

by John Jamison

After days of sinking viewership ratings for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it appears that Team USA’s gymnastics and swimming performances helped right NBC’s ship. That’s not to say things are looking great for the network, which is clinging to a mere half of the viewers it had for the 2016 games. But Thursday proved to be the second-most-watched day thus far.

If it wasn’t for the shocking 53% decline in viewership from 2016 during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony, one could argue that the ratings are dependent on the specific events that air on a given night. After all, Thursday’s action was highly entertaining. It saw 18-year old Suni Lee take home all-around gymnastic gold. On top of that, the USA swimmers were in top form, with Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel bringing home gold medals as well. The gold medal events hauled in 16.2 million viewers.

It’s amazing the difference that only four (well, five) years can make. On this same Thursday during the 2016 Rio games, 31.3 viewers tuned in to watch. And with the pandemic, it’s hard to explain exactly what’s causing the seeming lack of interest. Since 2016, the television space has only gotten more accessible. Many have left traditional cable behind, opting for streaming services like YouTubeTV that provide live programming, and will only charge users for the channels they want to watch.

And even with NBC’s streaming service in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics coverage conversation, the numbers leave a lot for the network to desire. Regardless, Thursday marked an overall improvement in viewership and bode well heading into the weekend coverage and the following week’s.

Thursday night also saw the NBA Draft, which pulled in a mere 1.48 million average. But those viewers could have otherwise helped the 2020 Tokyo Olympics numbers.

Advertisers Disappointed with 2020 Tokyo Olympics Viewership

Television advertisers got way less than they bargained for from the first week of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. They got exactly half of what they bargained for, to be specific. If they based their models on the 2016 Olympics, that is.

The opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics found just 17 million viewers. That marks the lowest figure in 33 years, and it has paid advertisers calling up NBC Universal with the intent of making up those losses.

Fortunately, roughly 15 million average viewers is still a massive figure in terms of regular TV programming. So at the end of the day, there are still plenty of eyeballs for the advertisers’ products. That hasn’t prevented them from pointing all of NBC’s perceived shortcomings in their approach to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

For one, they cited the lack of a focus on athlete-specific narratives that keep an audience compelled. The only other complaint that is really in NBC’s control is how they’ve handled the scheduling of their streaming coverage.