NBC's coverage of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics got off to a less than auspicious start Friday night, as the opening ceremony was the lowest-rated Summer Games launch in nearly a quarter-century.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, NBC's tape-delayed broadcast averaged a 13.9 household rating, making it the weakest turnout for a Summer Olympics table-setter since the 1992 Barcelona Games opened to a 13.8 rating. With an average delivery of 26.5 million viewers, the Brazilian spectacle now stands as the least-watched opening ceremony since Athens in 2004, which drew 25.9 million viewers.
Despite assurances from NBC executives that consumer awareness of the Rio Games was higher in the weeks leading up to the opening ceremony than it was in the analogous period four years ago, the initial linear TV data couldn't hold a candle to the London numbers. To be fair, the 2012 Olympics are a very tough comp; the 17-night adventure kicked off with a phenomenal 40.7 million viewers and a 21.7 household rating, which stands as the all-time highest-rated broadcast of an opening summer ceremony held outside the U.S. (The 1984 Los Angeles Games leads all comers with a 23.9 household rating, edging the opening salvo of the 1996 Atlanta Games by three-tenths of a point.)
Caveats about unfavorable comparisons to the 2012 Summer Games aside, Friday night's numbers were a disappointment by almost any measure. Not only were overall deliveries and the final household rating down 36% versus the London ceremony, but the Rio opener failed to secure bragging rights as the summer's biggest TV draw. That distinction remains the preserve of ABC, which on June 19 drew 31 million viewers and a 15.8 household rating with its coverage of Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
The pattern continued on Saturday night, the first official evening of competition, when NBC's primetime broadcast averaged 20.7 million viewers and an 11.4 household rating, which represented a 28% decline from 28.7 million viewers and a 15.8 rating back on July 28, 2012. Through the first two nights of the Games of the XXXI Olympiad, NBC's deliveries (23.6 million viewers, 12.7 household rating) are down nearly one-third (-32%) compared to London (34.7 million/18.8 rating).
While it's far too premature to project how the remaining 15 nights of coverage will fare, the early linear data suggests that if the ratings don't pick up soon, NBC may have to make good on a good deal of ADUs (industry argot for "audience deficiency units"). The network does not disclose its ratings targets, but buyers surveyed said NBC is guaranteeing primetime results that are within shooting range of the 17.5 household rating it averaged over the course of the London Games.
NBC CEO Steve Burke in the run-up to Rio was extremely bullish on the network's prospects, telling investors that the company would "make a lot more" than the $120 million in profit it secured in London. Mr. Burke also acknowledged that while under-deliveries were an occupational hazard, he doubted that they'd come into play.
"The way the Olympics work, you have a sufficient makegood to cover any ratings shortfall -- which we hope, and think, there won't be," Mr. Burke said last month during Comcast's second quarter earnings call. "But even if there was a significant shortfall, we would just make good during the Olympics. So we're looking, I think, at a very profitable Olympics."
Mr. Burke went on to add that NBC hit its sales target three weeks before the opening ceremony. "Normally we would hit the budget right about the time the Olympics started, or shortly thereafter," he said. "And our budget was about a 20% increase from London. So we're very, very happy with how we're doing in terms of Olympic sales."
Last week, Seth Winter, exec-VP ad sales, NBC Sports Group, announced his team had generated a record $1.2 billion in national Olympics sales, with a significant percentage of those dollars originating in automotive, insurance, quick service restaurants, telco, pharma, beverages and retail. (The London games Hoovered up a total of $1.3 billion in ad sales commitments, although that tally includes digital inventory and revenue secured for local avails on NBC's owned-and-operated stations and affiliates.)
Armchair quarterbacks have offered any number of theories as to why Rio thus far is underperforming initial expectations, a litany of speculation that includes the usual grousing about NBC's narrative-happy, tape-delayed coverage; a seemingly onerous amount of advertising in the opening ceremony and a general decline in interest thanks to an unwavering drumbeat of grim news (the Zika virus, sewage-befouled water venues, IOC corruption, murder) that threatens to overshadow the athletic competition. The first point is only viable if you haven't been paying attention for the last 20 years -- whipping up a stew of emo backstories and counter-narratives in order to appeal to viewers who aren't exactly die-hard sports fans has been the spine of NBC's Olympics playbook since Dick Ebersol began producing the events in 1992 -- while the abiding perception that the network clogged the arteries of Friday night's festivities with an oleaginous glut of advertising isn't supported by the commercial logs. NBC's opening ceremony averaged a little under 14 minutes of national spots per hour, which is well within the range of a typical prime time ad load.
(Then again, if industry types were bemused by all the grumbling over NBC's ad breaks -- they paid $1.23 billion for the rights! of course they're going to make you sit through a bunch of ads! -- the outcry certainly reinforced the notion that consumer tolerance for advertising in an everything-on-demand universe is shrinking faster than the polar ice caps.)
Certainly digital streaming may have taken a significant bite out of NBC's vanilla TV views, but the early numbers are inconclusive. NBC said it has notched 216 million live-streaming minutes through the first two nights of Rio, but that metric is wholly incommensurate with the way Nielsen measures and defines TV ratings. (At best it's an apples-to-Fiona Apple comparison.) That said, the Peacock promises to offer more insight into its streaming numbers later this week, when it rolls out its first comprehensive Total Audience Delivery report.
In the meantime, NBC's best shots at boosting its Rio deliveries likely lie in Sunday night's men's 4x100 meter freestyle relay (and basically any swimming event that gives Michael Phelps a chance at adding to his already towering career medal tally), as well as upcoming coverage of a women's gymnastics squad led by Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles, the Gold-or-GTFO men's U.S. basketball team, and Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and the rest of the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup championship squad.