NBC will run away with ratings gold thanks to the Tokyo Olympics, but its medal is tarnished by a viewership free fall from 2016 as rivals become less fearful of airing their big summer programs against the Games.
The primetime audience is down more than 40% from the equivalent period for the Rio Summer Games, reflecting an ongoing decline in traditional TV viewing spurred by cable cord-cutters and growth in streaming services.
Factors specific to these Games have also hurt ratings: A 13-hour time difference between Tokyo and the East Coast means much live competition occurs in the wee hours in the U.S. COVID-19 has resulted in various side effects, as the Games were delayed a year; some potential viewers object to holding them during a pandemic; and health restrictions have resulted in athletes performing in empty venues, dampening excitement.
Viewing choices: What to know about NBC's coverage of the Tokyo Olympics
On Thursday, NBC recorded its second-biggest total primetime audience of the Tokyo Games, 19.5 million viewers (just behind Sunday's 20 million), as Sunisa Lee won the gold medal in the women's all-around gymnastics competition. U.S. teammate Simone Biles' withdrawal from the team and all-around competitions had been the big gymnastics news leading into Thursday's event.
NBC's competitors are more emboldened in their counterprogramming decisions than in past Games. ABC is airing new episodes of "The Bachelorette" and CBS is going ahead with prominent reality competitions "Big Brother" and "Love Island."
Streaming services, which find traditional head-to-head scheduling considerations irrelevant, are rolling out new seasons of Apple TV+ sports comedy "Ted Lasso," nominated this month for 20 Emmy Awards, and Netflix's "Outer Banks."
Streaming opportunities: How to stream the Tokyo Olympics live on Hulu, Peacock and other platforms
That NBC's ratings are down – 17.5 million viewers across broadcast, cable and streaming platforms for the first seven nights vs. 30.5 million viewers in 2016 – isn't a big surprise considering almost all programming has suffered losses, save for the NFL. By comparison, the Oscars, another premiere TV event, were down 56% this year, attracting just 10.4 million viewers.
"It's pretty close to what we were expecting" in terms of audience size through the first five nights, says Brian Hughes, executive vice president at ad firm Magna. "The opening ceremony was not quite where we thought it would be, but in terms of the competition, it's pretty much where we were thinking we would end up."
Although the digital audience is much smaller than that of TV, the first six primetime nights of competition have been the most streamed in Olympics history, according to NBC, which has made boosting subscriptions for fledgling streaming service Peacock a top priority.
The Olympics still dwarf everything else on TV, with Thursday's primetime audience more than tripling the combined total of ABC, CBS and Fox.
"You've been looking at the erosion of ratings as we've had this explosion of content. So, is the Olympic mountain as big as it was in the media landscape? No, but it's still a mountain, and most of the other mountains that competed with it are now hills," says Andrew Billings, a University of Alabama professor and co-author of "Olympic Television: Broadcasting the Biggest Show on Earth."
Competing broadcast shows have been holding up OK compared with their pre-Olympic numbers. CBS reality competitions have performed in line with episodes that aired before the Games, and Monday's "Bachelorette" dropped less than 6% from its season average.
Friday's episode of "Ted Lasso," perhaps inspired by the title character's optimism, marked Apple TV+'s biggest premiere day ever, the streamer says.
"When CBS decided years ago to put original episodes of 'The Big Bang Theory' on a Thursday night against the (winter) Olympics, they knew they were forcing some level of choice for some of their audience," Billings says. "Here, you could choose 'Ted Lasso' when the Olympics is showing some (sport) you don't care about as much and then come back to it. So, viewers could have their cake and eat it, too. And I think Apple TV+ knows that."
The one-year delay in the 2020 Olympics prevented Peacock, which launched last year, from getting a big opening boost, but NBCUniversal hopes this summer's Games can rev up sluggish subscription numbers.
"Live sports content definitely has to be part of streaming in the future, so this was a really good way for (NBC) to test the waters for their own platform in terms of how they serve up the content, how people prefer to watch it," Hughes says. "On (NBC's) broadcast and cable networks, they have the opportunity to promote (Peacock) and try to get more subscribers or get existing free subscribers to upgrade to premium."
Looking forward, Billings says programmers must continue to look beyond TV: "If I'm NBC, I see the TV ratings game as the battle and the ability to make inroads on the streaming front the war."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Summer Olympics aren't scaring away TV rivals from 'Ted Lasso,' more