It’s just a few days after the Rio Olympics, and the numbers are out: NBC reported a huge drop in ratings stacked up against Summer Games in London four years ago. According to Bloomberg News, primetime viewers dropped 17 percent, and the highly coveted 18-to-49-year-old age group, the viewers advertisers love the most, dropped a full quarter, 25 percent less than 2012.
So what happened, exactly? It’s not like the Olympics didn’t have plenty of big names and big stories, from Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps supposedly competing in the Games for the last time, to newer, younger stars like Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, the men’s basketball team stacked with NBA all-stars and all the drama that comes with the two weeks of competition. The Games were exactly what the Summer Olympics are supposed to be: a fun time watching sports in the normally boring-ass month of August when all you’ve got to look forward to is your hot commute to work and dog days baseball.
As Jeff Andrews at Voactiv pointed out, NBC sort of thought this kind of thing could happen, pointing to a “nightmare” scenario for the Games that the network paid $12 billion to host until 2032: “We wake up someday and the ratings are down 20 percent,” Burke said at a conference in June. The nightmare came true, and Burke prophesied who the Freddy Krueger in the really bad dream would be: “[M]y prediction would be that millennials had been in a Facebook bubble or a Snapchat bubble and the Olympics have come, and they didn’t know it.”
While other sports, like the Super Bowl and various other playoffs and championships still pull in big numbers, it has some wondering how one of the biggest broadcast networks could come out with such poor numbers. Is there something NBC did to scare off the millenials? Are the Olympics just not as interesting anymore? Do the youth of today have no pride in their country?
No. It’s none of those things. NBC can’t blame the low ratings on the first twentysomething they find; it’s not a generational thing that you can blame on the dude with the weird haircut who keeps Snapchatting selfies of himself out into the ether. Nope, it’s squarely on NBC. They paid that insane amount of money for the rights to the Games, and they chose not to air some of the marquee events live, opting to try and make certain competitions that may have taken place hours earlier as Must See TV. You could really picture the whole idea being baked up Jack Donaghy and a few other executives in expensive suits as part of a 30 Rock episode plot line, a bunch of clueless rich guys making up for what they lack in a clue with plenty of hubris. They think that it would be fine to post something that happened earlier in the day on nighttime television, hardly taking into account that something that happened five hours earlier may have just as well taken place in the 1990s with the way news and information spreads. Sure, there were some people crying, “Spoiler alert!” at people who mentioned wins before they were on TV but, for the most part, people young and old watched the Olympics. Just not the way the network that owns the broadcast rights to the Games would have preferred.
Yet somehow, for some reason, NBC thought that wouldn’t matter. It seemed they felt they could hold back the breaking news alerts, people checking sports sites, and Twitter, which seemed to do really well during the Olympics. Add to the fact that more than a few of those people were probably tweeting about the poor quality of the NBC live stream, and you probably start getting a clearer idea as to what the problem was. It wasn’t the Olympics or the quality of the competition (both were pretty stellar), and it wasn’t your younger cousin who keeps making jokes about somebody named Harambe; it’s squarely on NBC for making a multi-billion dollar investment and not quite figuring out what to do with it.