Show-Stopping Paris Opener Sets Up Return to Olympics Normalcy

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The opening ceremony of the 2024 Paris Olympics this summer is at once an opportunity for the host country to give a warm welcome to the 10,500 athletes competing in the Games and a chance to show off for the global billions who’ve tuned in. This is our home, and we’re looking forward to sharing it with you over the next 16 days, is the gala’s subtext, although that message is often obscured by the somewhat more hysterical theme that radiates from the TV set: We are a strange and clamorous people. Marvel at our giddy theatrics.

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If the parade of nations and the spectacle surrounding it serve as a sort of cultural crash course for the world at large—in 2012, Danny Boyle’s eye-popping opening pageant was like mainlining a thousand years of English history to the soundtrack of Britpop—they also set the tone for pretty much everything that comes next. The London Games kicked off with a salute to the National Health Service and a base-jumping stunt performed by stand-ins for two of the most famous people in that green and pleasant land (James Bond, Queen Elizabeth II), and by the time the Zimbabwe Olympic team had completed its smile-and-wave circuit, it was apparent that Boyle’s delightfully bonkers production had thrown open the doors to a truly memorable midsummer event.

When the Nielsen data dropped the following afternoon, NBC knew it had a hit on its hands. A record 40.7 million Americans tuned in to the opening ceremony, which told advertisers just about all they needed to know about how their investments would pan out. With an average primetime draw of 31.1 million viewers, the 2012 London Games stands as the most-watched Summer Olympics to take place outside of the U.S., and while overall TV-usage trends don’t favor a repeat performance, our Gallic cousins may have just the thing to get us all huddled around the tube on July 26.

In a bold new spin on the traditional stadium-based ceremony, the French will be staging their opener as a moveable feast. An armada of ships bearing the athletes will sail down the Seine and through the heart of the City of Lights, in a nautical parade passing by such landmarks as the Louvre and the under-construction Notre-Dame de Paris. (Nearly destroyed in a 2019 blaze, the cathedral is expected to reopen in time for Christmas.) Barring any last-minute alterations to the manifest, the journey is set to conclude at the base of the Eiffel Tower.

Aside from the sheer novelty value of subbing in a 6-kilometer river voyage for the standard single-site format, the fact that this year’s ceremony will be overseen by one of Europe’s most strange and wonderful peoples should translate to a big stateside draw.

While the Comité National Olympique et Sportif Français hasn’t disclosed whether the opener will feature the usual brand of choreographed je ne sais whatever, it stands to reason that they’ll carry out the boat trip with a characteristic show of whimsical bombast. If they can’t enlist Jean Reno to do some sort of Jean-Paul Sartre-on-roller-skates bit, would it kill them to whip up some sort of stylishly dyspeptic homage à Jerry Lewis? Or how about a Serge Gainsbourg hologram crooning affably alongside stinky cartoon rascal Pepé Le Pew? (The French don’t even have a word for “canceled.”)

And before anybody starts popping off with the “ugly American” routine, these are the same people who designed the Olympic mascot after a hat. Because of course they did. As clumsy allegorical gestures go, the Phryge is endearing enough, although for the sake of verisimilitude it should probably have a Gauloise perched on his bottom lip. Like most mascots, the “Fridge” is the very picture of stoic silence, although there’s a good chance he’s probably muttering something like “la vie est nulle” under his breath whenever he’s not waving the tricolor.

If Paris’ watery opener does draw a big crowd, NBC can expect to retain a whole bunch of those impressions over the course of the Games. Yes, the erosion of the American TV habit is rather alarming—season-to-date, usage is down 7% versus the year-ago period and off another 17% when compared to the analogous span in 2021-22—but broadcast and cable aren’t the only Olympics platforms. According to Comcast’s most recent quarterly earnings report, the company now boasts over 31 million paying Peacock subscribers, which works out to a 55% gain compared to the Tokyo Olympics.

As has been the case for the last several Olympics, NBCUniversal is guaranteeing impressions across all its platforms, which naturally gives it a better shot at meeting advertisers’ expectations. And marketers certainly haven’t been scared off by recent ratings shortfalls, which were largely a function of crowd-free backdrops and a sort of global malaise. As one media buyer told us recently, Paris “feels like a return to normalcy, in terms of ratings potential and, um, vibes.” After a comparatively joyless showing during the long-delayed Tokyo Games and the ugly political backdrop of Beijing, the upcoming Olympics is arguably the first “normal” outing since London.

More to the point, the six-hour time difference between New York and Paris is a hell of a lot more palatable than the 13-hour gap that wreaked havoc in 2018 and 2021. That NBC has booked north of $1 billion in sales suggests that advertisers haven’t given up on the Olympic dream—although if Paris indeed marks a return to form, the deliveries will likely only serve as a preview of what’s in store when Los Angeles hosts the Summer Games four years from now.

Another factor working in NBC’s favor is the out-of-home boost, which has given sports a leg up since Nielsen began merging the bonus deliveries with the numbers from its national TV panel in 2020. Now that audiences in bars, restaurants and other public venues (as well as the homes of friends and family) count toward the official ratings tally, NBC can expect to add millions of impressions during each night of the Summer Games. Every eyeball counts toward the official total, and OOH goes a long way toward recapturing the audience segments that otherwise choose to spend their summer evenings far away from the couch and tube.

Now, the more nights NBC hits its ratings guarantees, the more of that heady sales haul it’ll get to keep—although the Olympics is clearly not a cash grab. NBC is currently in the thick of a $7.75 billion rights contract with the IOC, which is set to run out after 2032. With such razor thin margins, profits are hard to come by, although the company has eked out a few in recent years. (Even boffo London was a break-even outing, as sales essentially offset the rights fee.)

With 112 days to go before the opening ceremony gets underway, NBC looks to be in great shape. Aside from the easy pickings afforded by such official Olympics sponsors as Toyota, Visa, Samsung and Procter & Gamble—all of which were among the top spenders in Tokyo—NBC has the advantage of not having to deal with much in the way of counter-programming. Summer repeats and lowest-common-denominator unscripted shows aren’t likely to take a bite out of the primetime audience, and outside of baseball, the stretch between July 26 and August 11 isn’t exactly a sportsman’s paradise, hon hon hon.

Of course, if NBC is to build on what’s expected to be a showstopping opener, the U.S. team will have to embark on its usual search-and-destroy medal mission. The roster looks promising, and thanks to Simone Biles, Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, Katie Ledecky and the star-in-the-making that is Sha’Carri Richardson, NBC may well enjoy a surge of interest courtesy of all those newly minted fans of women’s sports. Paris may not hit the highs of London, but after its recent disappointments in the Far East, NBC should be in for a real doozy of a summer once the “Ceci n’est pas une half-pipe” signs go up at the Place de la Concorde.

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