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NBC is facing a cataclysmic loss of audience for the 2022 Winter Olympics as viewership tanked for Friday’s Opening Ceremony, averaging just 16 million.
It is a record low for the Opening Ceremony (20.1 million for 1988 in Calgary was the previous record) and a whopping 43 percent below the 2018 Games in South Korea that notched 28.3 million viewers despite also dealing with a less than advantageous Asian time zone for American audiences.
It comes on the heels of Thursday’s ratings disaster that saw just 7.7 million people tune in, dramatically below same-night audiences of 2018 (16 million) and 2014 from Russia (20.02 million).
NBC said the 16 million is a “total audience delivery” and includes all of its networks and streaming. The television-only average audience was below 14 million for the day, per the preliminary data released by the network.
While ratings tend to increase over the first week, as more viewers get caught up in the action, NBC will have to work out of a ratings hole.
The host country, China, is a serious problem.
Numerous countries, including the United States, are staging a “diplomatic boycott” of these Games due to what they say is China’s active campaign of genocide against the Uyghurs, a minority ethic group of mostly Muslims in the far northwest part of the country.
China denies the charge but has also banned United Nations human rights officials from entering the region.
In issues more directly related to the Games, China’s drastic anti-COVID measures have made life inside its “closed loop” a high-stress and near joyless experience for the athletes and a massive challenge for NBC.
Athletes have complained about the fear of positive tests, substandard conditions in unnecessary “isolation centers” and the need to guard against China hacking into their phones and computers to mine data and steal identities.
Friday’s Opening Ceremony from the famed Bird’s Nest in Beijing was scaled back (just over two hours) and rich with politics and propaganda, including a speech from International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach that might as well have been written by the Chinese Communist Party.
While the use of a massive LED screen on the floor produced some impressive visuals, it was a far cry from an expansive, welcoming, celebratory, over-the-top show China delivered to open the 2008 Summer Games.
It ended with China using cross country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang, who the state run media said has Uyghur heritage, as one of the cauldron lighters. It was a clear counter to the claims of genocide — see, look at this smiling, celebrated Uyghur.
It was a disturbing and dispiriting moment, a young athlete and an iconic moment in every Olympics used as a propaganda prop to cover up a campaign of slavery, torture, forced abortions and internment in reeducation camps. It did nothing to build good feelings toward the competition.
As such, rather than a celebration, this feels, and looks, like a grind of hardship, isolation and suspicion.
The lack of fans in attendance doesn’t help either. Thursday’s ice skating competition was surreal, a performative event where the connection between competitor and crowd is paramount. Instead, with just 800 in attendance, it looked and sounded like a practice session, complete with music rattling around within the poor acoustics of the facility.
Then there is a measure of “Olympic fatigue.” These Games are taking place less than six months after the COVID-delayed Summer Olympics from Tokyo that itself struggled to draw ratings (an average nightly audience of just 15.5 million).
All of this is a nightmare for NBC, which is paying the IOC $7.75 billion to broadcast the Olympics through 2032.
NBC is doing almost all it can but its reporters and crews are stuck in the “closed loop.” That eliminates live shots with mountains or historic buildings as backdrops as well as stories about the culture, architecture and people of China that can make the Olympics about more than just sport.
Host Mike Tirico broadcast from a set designed like a mountain chalet, but that could have been in Breckenridge, not Beijing. And Tirico, the face of the broadcast, will be leaving in the coming days to anchor NBC’s coverage of the Super Bowl, which due to the lengthening of the NFL season has spilled into the Olympic calendar and further siphoned off interest and outside media coverage.
Meanwhile, most of NBC’s play-by-play broadcasters are calling the Games remotely from studios in Connecticut rather than risk China’s COVID policies.
While that may be mostly indistinguishable to the viewer, it means the network can’t have the “Today Show” and its “Nightly News” broadcast live from the city for additional promotion. There are no segments with Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, say, shopping in Beijing. Or Al Roker trying to luge. Or whatever.
It all adds up.
And right now it subtracts into fewer and fewer viewers, who so far have too many other options than to tune into a passionless, fanless, overly political event from a country trying to use the Olympics to brush aside the horrors occurring inside its border.
To the IOC, this is great. Thus far, the American viewer is less accepting.