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Future Tense Newsletter: How Dare You Not Watch the Olympics!

A man stands amid empty seats above a TOKYO 2020 sign.
During the men’s individual modern pentathlon during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Aug. 7, the stands were empty, and not too many were watching from the U.S., either. Pedro Pardo/Getty Images

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Honestly, I’m disappointed in so many of you. Eleven million of you, to be precise. That’s the drop-off in average primetime NBC viewership from the 2016 Rio Olympics to the just-concluded Tokyo Games. Shame on you. America needed this. Comcast needed this. Katie needed this. Fiji needed this (don’t you dare ask now). Even the ROC needed this.

The Olympics were awesome and inspiring (minus a jerk here or there), if poignantly raw and honest, reflecting the times, and it took a gargantuan effort to pull them off under the circumstances. But no, you couldn’t be bothered. You turned your back on Caeleb and Simone and Allyson. What, streaming FBOY Island couldn’t wait? C’mon, man, as our president would say. (By the way, his wife was at the Olympics cheering on our athletes, not that you care.)

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No one ever said being a sports fan, even one who understandably opts out of baseball, is easy. I had all of four days this week to catch my breath between the Tokyo Games and the start of the new English Premier League season on Friday, and I didn’t appreciate how even they were hijacked by Leo Messi’s dramatic exfiltration from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Qatar. And before the Games, I only had 12 days to recharge my batteries after the Euros.

There has been much speculation as to why these Olympic ratings (15.5 million viewers a night, on average, the lowest in decades) were so disappointing. The Games, especially as curated by NBC, are supposed to be about aspiration and celebration, with a host city cheerfully welcoming the athletes, their loved ones, and the world at large. Tokyo’s COVID-19 Olympics told a different story, to put it mildly. They were the somber offshore Games, held in a bubble cut off from the ostensible host, enveloped by a mist of controversy. And even without the pandemic, Olympic Games held in Asia always present formidable time-zone challenges to U.S. broadcasters and their audiences.

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Still, the pandemic and time-zone challenges are only secondary explanations for the plummeting viewership. The main culprit remains the technology-driven revolution in our media consumption, and the across-the-board fragmentation of audiences.

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These Olympics were a bust relative to past performance, sure, but so were the 2016 Rio Games compared with their London predecessor. And over the past year, we have seen other appointment-television events, notably awards ceremonies like the Oscars and Grammys, lose an even greater proportion of their audience.

As reported in the Los Angeles Times, during the TV season prior to the 2016 Rio Olympics, 35.7 percent of Americans tuned in to watch primetime “linear television” (a term that encompasses scheduled programming on broadcast, cable, or satellite TV, in contrast to on-demand streaming) on an average night. That number had fallen to 25 percent by the 2020-2021 season leading into Tokyo, and only 16 percent of 18-to-49 year-olds.

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Cord-cutting is a familiar, if accelerating story, and against its backdrop, perhaps one of the surprising takeaways from the Olympics, worthy of one of NBC’s own syrupy features of adversity overcome, is the dogged perseverance and resilience of the traditional broadcast model.

NBC, the network itself, was like that aged Olympian refusing to make way to the next generation, still formidable but in denial that it is a shadow of its former self. These Olympics were supposed to be the coming out party for Peacock, Comcast’s fledgling streaming service and supposed future, but instead the Olympics were delivered to us much like a bewildering Gabriel García Márquez tale, in which all times (and all media business models) coexist.

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NBC Universal boasted of the 7,000 hours of coverage across all its platforms, but as widely noted, it was challenging to figure out whether to watch the broadcast network, the multiple Comcast cable channels—NBC Sports, CNBC, USA, the Olympic channel, and so on—or Peacock (which itself presented an array of bewildering choices). The only thing missing was the live broadcast across the old NBC Radio System.

It felt like we were all being held hostage to an inter-generational squabble within the Comcast empire (picture the ’90s hires excitedly going on about the deployment of all those cable channels!), and part of the reason for this is that the demise of the old TV model may be greatly exaggerated.

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This gets confusing, I know, because the numbers (of diminishing eyeballs) don’t lie, and if they eventually reach zero, they will be worth zero. But in the meantime, with 15 million of us tuning in over 17 nights, were the Olympics such a disaster for NBC?

When I last wrote here about streaming in February, I wrote about how we’ve lost our water cooler, meaning we no longer share certain unavoidable narratives and media events. But maybe the better way to think about it is that we have gone from having the one proverbial water cooler to having water coolers everywhere, often to ourselves or shared by just a few kindred spirits.

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And in this age of abundant water coolers, sports programming is fast becoming the only aggregator of significant live audiences, of viewers willing to sit through advertising. Sports’ viewership is eroding over time, but far less so than the viewership for any other type of programming, especially any scripted content on linear TV. Of the 10 most-watched single telecasts of 2020 in the U.S., eight were sporting events, and none were scripted drama or comedy.

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NBC Universal claims it brought in more revenue in ad sales for this Olympics than it did for Rio, and that it will make a profit on its $1 billion investment (roughly what it paid for the rights to televise Tokyo 2020 in 2021), even after some rebates and additional ads given to brands that were expecting higher ratings. And that is before taking into account all the spillover gains the Games can bring a network, in the form of viewers attracted to other promoted NBC or Peacock content. (The company claims, for instance, that its affiliated local newscasts saw an astonishing 79 percent bump in ratings over the preceding four weeks.)

The point is that while many of you failed to show up, those of us who did were each more valuable than ever to advertisers, because it is getting more and more difficult to find a crowd to pitch. Not long ago, even mediocre sitcoms would routinely be watched by 10 million viewers submissively sitting through commercials, but increasingly sport broadcasts (and some other live contest formats) are the only place to find such a crowd.

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So, if you want to feel special and valued, tune into Paris in three years.

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Upcoming Event

Unlocking Our Climate Imagination
Tuesday, Aug. 31 at noon Eastern

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When we imagine our climate future, it’s easy to drift toward catastrophe, especially in view of this summer’s shocking examples of climate chaos—from floods and sinkholes to heat domes and unchecked wildfires. But while stories about impending doom are motivating for some people, they leave others feeling dispirited.

The Climate Imagination Fellowship, a project of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, in partnership with the U.N. High-Level Climate Champions, TED Countdown, and the ClimateWorks Foundation, brings together science fiction writers from around the world to imagine those positive futures, but also to ground them in local complexities, and real scientific and technological insights.

Join the climate imagination fellows— Vandana Singh, Hannah Onoguwe, Libia Brenda—as well as science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, Energy Transitions Commission Commissioner Nigel Topping, and Boston Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman for an hourlong online conversation. They’ll explore the stories we’re telling ourselves about the climate crisis today, and the kinds of narratives we’ll need to help chart a path toward a better future. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

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