An average of 11.4 million viewers watched the Beijing Olympics on NBC Universal platforms each night — the smallest prime-time audience on record for any Winter Games and well off the 19.8 million nightly viewers for the Pyeongchang Games in 2018.
More than two weeks of coverage, starting with the frigid opening show on Feb. 4 and ending Sunday, drew 160 million total viewers across the NBC television channel, the Peacock streaming service and other platforms, NBC Universal said on Monday.
Dramatic story lines proliferated during NBC Universal’s 2,800 hours of coverage, but few catered to an audience that may have craved escapist forays and tales of triumph. Pandemic restrictions forced the competitions to take place in a bubble. The result: mostly empty stands, and NBC announcers such as Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski having to deliver their dispatches from a compound in Connecticut.
Several of the most memorable episodes lacked the uplifting, inspirational qualities that make for blockbuster Olympic broadcasts. Mikaela Shiffrin, an American skier who had won three Olympic medals before arriving in Beijing, stumbled disastrously in several events and went home empty-handed. Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old Russian figure skating star, fell apart during her free skate while weathering a doping scandal. When she stepped off the ice, her coach berated her on camera.
Geopolitical tensions also dogged the Olympics. China tried to scrub the Games of political overtones using bots and fake accounts. And concern about the welfare of the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who last year accused a political official of sexual abuse, threatened to overshadow the Games.
Closing Out the Games
“The Olympics brand is really struggling. A lot of people don’t feel that emotional connection anymore,” said Tang Tang, a media professor at Kent State University who has studied the Olympics.
The Beijing Olympics lacked the kind of powerhouse narrative that turned the American swimmer Michael Phelps and his eight gold medals into must-watch TV in 2008. One of the breakout stars of this year’s Games, the Chinese American skier Eileen Gu, competed for China rather than the United States. And players in the National Hockey League didn’t participate.
“Audiences watch the Olympics for the stories. They need that superhero story, that star quality,” Professor Tang said. “They don’t really see the Olympics as a true sporting event, but rather as something more personal.”
In 2014, NBC Universal bought the American rights to air the Olympics through 2032 for $7.75 billion. But the Beijing Games, and those in Tokyo six months earlier, were logistically challenging. The Tokyo Olympics drew the smallest audience since NBCUniversal began covering the Summer Games in 1988.
In Beijing, NBC Universal grappled with a 13-hour time difference from New York, which meant that social media and news reports usually delivered Olympic results long before viewers watched a broadcast. The company said that this year’s Olympics were its most streamed Winter Games ever, with 4.3 billion minutes streamed across digital and social media.
Well before this month, NBC Universal had told advertisers to expect lower ratings for the Beijing Games compared with the Pyeongchang event. The company said on Monday that its coverage in Beijing had topped everything in prime-time television other than the N.F.L.
The biggest night for this year’s Games was Feb. 13, when 24 million people tuned in, many of them probably coming from NBC Universal’s Super Bowl broadcast. The football game drew 112 million viewers, or 70 percent of the total viewers who watched the Olympics over more than two weeks.