Last week, Michael Newman began his Media and Cultural Studies seminar at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee with a simple question: How many students were watching the Beijing Olympics on television? One hand went up. Then he asked how many had seen videos from the Beijing Games on YouTube or social media. Almost every student raised their hand.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve seen article after article touting the record low television ratings for NBC’s Olympics coverage. Those articles are accurate, and they tell an important business story. Almost every network television program, with the singular exception of NFL broadcasts, is attracting smaller traditional viewership numbers. The Olympics broadcasts specifically also faced enormous headwinds: The Tokyo Games aired just last year, the ongoing pandemic has disrupted all of our lives, and China’s blatant disregard of human rights added a repulsive element to this year’s festivities.
But there’s another, slightly different type of article that’s proliferated both this year and during the 2021 Tokyo Games, a genre of story that takes it as a given that no one is watching the Olympics. That’s completely inaccurate. As I told the Washington Post last week, it’s possible that the 2022 Olympics will be one of the most-watched events in U.S. history. It’s just that we’re watching on our phones and in our browsers.
The idea that “watching TV” requires a box on a pedestal or a panel on a wall remains so deeply engrained in our minds that a snippet of video consumed some other way feels like it doesn’t count. But fundamentally, it’s all the same. Somebody gets paid to relay a video signal through a transmission process and distribution channel that ultimately monetizes our attention when we click (or scroll) to watch. The final leg in that process—the distribution hardware—is a screen. And screens, in case you haven’t noticed, are everywhere. We carry them around all day, and into bed at night. We’re exposed to them while we’re waiting for airplanes to take off, or for our cars to gas up, or when we’re checking out at the supermarket. They’ve become such a part of our atmosphere that today we’re surprised and delighted by their absence, not their presence.
And all those screens, all over the United States, are on all the time. We glance, we doomscroll, we get sucked in for a second or an hour. Sometimes we notice what we’re watching; sometimes we don’t. That’s why, according to quantifiable metrics, Olympic viewership is stratospheric even as we think that “nobody is watching.”
To give you a sense of audiences across platforms, the linear television ratings for the broadcast featuring Nathan Chen’s gold-medal ice skating victory indicated a total of approximately 12 million viewers watched on NBC (and its associated TV channels). Yet, at YouTube, Chen’s Beijing Olympic videos have notched more than 16 million views. For a sense of proportion, when combining the numbers from NBC Sports’ YouTube videos that show Russian skater Kamila Valieva’s Olympic routines, you get more than 11 million views as of this writing. (The numbers might well be higher had NBC Sports left the standalone video of her final free skate posted to YouTube—the dramatic one in which the medals were decided and that was followed by the Russian team’s emotional reactions. As of this writing, the channel is now only sharing Valieva’s final routine as part of compilations featuring her competitors and much short video commentary about that scene that Defector’s Kalyn Kahler called “one of the most riveting and disconcerting sports TV moments” we’ve ever experienced.)
The television programs required enormous production costs, but YouTube, Tik Tok (with which NBC signed an exclusive marketing deal before the Games began), and NBC’s other partner platforms did not; they simply repurpose broadcast videos, meaning that social media’s video recycling only adds to NBC’s profitability. Those social media views will continue accruing for weeks, months, and years. At this point, it is no exaggeration to suggest that the overall social media viewership across all channels (including the official Olympics YouTube channel) for the Beijing Games totals in the hundreds of millions by now.
So, if the Olympic Games are a hit—if millions more are watching than are showing up in the traditional TV ratings metrics—then why isn’t NBC’s PR shop bragging a whole lot more? While press releases have regularly detailed the gains made by NBC’s streaming outlet Peacock, the titanic numbers racked up on TikTok and YouTube garner far less enthusiasm from the old broadcast network.
The reason, like so much in commercial media, boils down to revenue. Each individual linear TV viewer remains far more valuable than thousands (or even tens of thousands) of social media users. To note that the reach of YouTube and TikTok is extending NBC’s viewership into the hundreds of millions might unintentionally send the network’s more lucrative broadcast audience into the sea of on-demand digital video consumption, where their value would be diluted.
Cannibalizing audience has always been a threat when new media practices displace old ones. That’s the reason newspapers rushed into broadcasting in the 1920s by purchasing or starting radio stations, and why those radio stations bought up television licenses in the late 1940s and early 1950s. What’s largely forgotten today is the extent to which old media models funded those transitional eras. Radio advertising’s enormous profitability subsidized the inventiveness and creativity that early television needed to fully develop, just as television today is funding the online video revolution.
Olympic broadcasts are sui generis, providing a venue for suspenseful programming that’s entirely predictable for production planning. They are staged and theatrical, but also spontaneous and suspenseful, combining “liveness” with timeless modes of storytelling and mythmaking. And the Olympics haven’t just made use of modern media—they’ve helped it evolve. The Nazis showed the world television during the 1936 Games, two decades before most Americans could place that electronic box in their living rooms. The 1968 Mexico City Olympics took primitive experiments in satellite relay of color TV signals and made them so common and ubiquitous that within a decade every local TV news market in the U.S. had a truck capable of transmitting them.
That the IOC gifted the repressive Chinese dictatorship an expansive opportunity to burnish its global reputation certainly leaves a sour taste—to put it lightly. But for better or worse, the propaganda on display may not be this Olympics’ most enduring legacy. We’re experiencing a new media transition, in real time. Olympic media is always about the future, never the present nor the past, and to fully gauge the impact of these Games will take time. Eventually, we’ll learn if the enticing storylines—such as that of Erin Jackson, the first Black woman to win a speedskating gold; Nathan Chen’s incredible performance; and the revival of Soviet-era Russian skullduggery through the story of Kamila Valieva, to name just a few—will have as much staying power in popular memory as the discussion of Chinese repression or the inflection point of consuming video en masse in a new manner.
The Beijing Winter Olympics are over now, and they belong to history. But I suspect that in the future, we’ll recognize the pivotal historical role the Games played in ushering in our 21st-century media consumption habits. Some will, at least. Granted, most Americans forgot that the Nazis had introduced television to the world when they were enjoying I Love Lucy 20 years later.