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Beijing Returns to Host Another Olympics — How Many Americans Will Tune In This Time?

Media observers predict how many will tune in to Beijing's second Olympics in fourteen years

The 24th Winter Olympics from the city of Beijing in the country of China are upon us.

Do you care?

Of course, the athletes, their families and loved ones care. Sports fans who enjoy watching competition care. And, the world’s broadcasters, like NBCUniversal, greatly care — Olympics are big business.

Nonetheless, that exuded cynicism towards these Olympics, in particular, is quite simple to sense. These are the second Games within a seven-month span. The pandemic delayed the most recent Olympics from Tokyo from the summer of 2020 to the summer of 2021. Is an American public anxious to gear up for more Olympic action when those Tokyo Games drew less than stellar audiences?

2022 marks the third year of the pandemic, continuing to cloud the entire sports world. The arenas were empty in Japan with limited public fanfare overall. The limitations are also abound in Beijing. China employs a strict zero-tolerance policy with COVID, leading NBC to halt sending their commentators there. Instead, their mass broadcasting hub will be in Stamford, Connecticut.

For every Games, people usually find something to embrace about the respective host involved. But perhaps the biggest obstacle of all this time to attract interest might be the host country itself. There’s no gray area when it comes to having an opinion on China.

Back in 2008, the city of Beijing put on a grand show for its opening ceremony to kick off the Summer Olympics. The majestic display also symbolized a representation of China as a prominent global superpower. But much more has been known about the Communist country ever since. Long-held truths about China even pre-2008 have come to light.

Human rights violations (especially including the alleged Uyghur genocide of Muslim citizens), subpar environmental conditions, privacy concerns, and intrusive media censorship have all placed China under constant global scrutiny. And of course, the country was Ground Zero for our current coronavirus pandemic, in the province of Wuhan. Former NBC Sports host Bob Costas recently described the International Olympic Commission (IOC) as “shameless” for returning the Olympic Games to China. The many controversies have led to several developed nations including the United States to employ a diplomatic boycott, sending no government representative.

Is there enough star power to attract the casual American viewer? It’s been nearly three decades since the real-life soap opera of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. There are no drama-filled athletes this year but some notable competitors include Nathan Chen who is the United States’ best hopes for a gold medal in figure skating. Beijing will act as his redemption Games, following his fifth-place finish in PyeongChang in 2018. On the slopes, gold medalists Michaela Schiffrin, Shaun White and Chloe Kim look to impress once more. The cult favorite sport of curling will again feature five-time Olympian John Shuster who’ll lead the U.S. men’s squad, the defending gold medal champions, as its skipper.

The viewing experience aims to be a much simpler one compared to the ones for the Tokyo Games. The now-defunct NBCSN shuttered operations back on Jan. 1. The more widely distributed USA Network is NBC’s new main cable hub for Beijing, with CNBC also airing action. The nascent streaming service Peacock, where it only broadcast a few Olympic sporting events in the summer, will make every event of the Beijing Olympics available but one must be subscribed to at least the $5 premium tier to access them.

Beijing, China represents the third consecutive Olympics to occur on the continent of Asia. The 13-hour time difference from the Eastern time zone once again signals that the bulk of significant sporting events will take place in the early morning. It seemed that nearly every Olympics within the past two decades that were held at the opposite side of the world from us North Americans has been a relative disappointment in the ratings, even going back to 1998’s Nagano, Japan, CBS’ last broadcast of the Games. All but one: the 2008 Summer Games from Beijing. But today’s view of China is vastly different from the one fourteen years ago.

The last two Games — PyeongChang, South Korea in 2018 and Tokyo, Japan in 2021 — drew the two lowest audience figures in recorded ratings history. Tokyo fell 43 percent from 2016’s Olympics from Rio de Janeiro; logistically, the same percentage declines will occur here, especially in this fragmented viewing world. Not even a post-Super Bowl slot on Feb. 13 will lift Beijing 2022 above an average of 11 million viewers per night for the networks and platforms of NBC.

I inquired with professionals in the media industry to provide their ratings prognostications for the upcoming Winter Olympics. Here are their takes:

Marc Berman, Editor-in-Chief of Programming Insider

10.9 million.
Honestly, I am trying to be optimistic here. But does anyone even know the Winter Olympics on NBC are right around the corner? And, if they do, does anyone really care this time around? My prediction is a resounding no.

Ken Fang, Awful Announcing

There are a lot of extenuating circumstances coming into the Olympics from COVID to human rights violations. This is not going to be a popular Games. I’m going with an 9.5 million average viewership on NBC, cable and streaming.

Jon Lewis, Sports Media Watch

NBC is projecting about a 6.0 rating for the Olympics, according to a recent report in Business Insider, which in the current TV environment would land around 12-13 million viewers. That seems about right to me. This is an Olympics with no buzz and no stars in a host country that is increasingly unpopular here. Add to that the fact that it is being overshadowed by the ongoing NFL playoffs and NBC might be lucky to meet its diminished guarantee.

My prediction is 12.2 million viewers per night.

Timothy Burke, President at Burke Communications

12 million. They can’t goose the linear numbers, but they can for the streaming, otherwise I’d say 9; linear way down because: they killed NBCSN, no NBC talent onsite, less than a year since the previous Olympics, and general disinterest trends

Ryan Glasspiegel, New York Post sports/entertainment reporter

13 million on NBC/cable/streaming – This is still a big number for anything not named the NFL, but the Games are in Asia again which will make the time slots tricky, like they were with Tokyo. There is also going to be some backlash from people who do not want to support the fact that the Games are in China, based on COVID-19 originating there and their well documented human rights issues.

Maury Brown, Forbes

If Tokyo showed anything it’s that live sports well out of the US time zones makes for lowered interest during the pandemic. The pageantry is missing. I’ll say 14.9 million.

Jonathan Tannenwald, The Philadelphia Inquirer

I will go with 14 million, and that might still be high. There’s so little interest here in these Olympics, so little star power, and such cynicism about China hosting.

David Barron, Houston Chronicle sports media columnist

13.8 million. I don’t see any particularly compelling stories that will draw casual viewers, and I think viewers in this unsettled section of the COVID pandemic will opt for other options, particularly after the riveting NFL playoffs. I hope I’m unjustly pessimistic, but I think some viewers will be ready for sports downtime after the Super Bowl.

Chad Finn, Boston Globe sports media columnist

13 million. As always, there will be stories that emerge during the Games that capture the attention of television viewers. But heading into the Games, absolutely nothing has gone NBC’s way.

Phillip Swann, TV Answer Man

19 million, which would be a hefty increase over the Summer Games. Why? Winter creates a captive audience. Plus, the NFL effect. Football’s thrilling playoff games, which have garnered huge ratings, have created a larger appetite for high-profile sporting events.

Jason Jacobs, Northwest Iowa Campus Radio 103.9 (KUOO) deejay-sports announcer

The overall downward trend for linear TV continues to affect the Olympics this winter. One thing these Games have going for them is a plan to put fans in the stands. That will make it look more normal when watching. The downside is the games being in China. Some will be turned off by that. We’ll see sharp declines again but not quite to the 40+ percent we experienced last summer. I’ll say 12.1 million.

Scott Nolte, Northwest Iowa Y100.1 FM (KUYY) deejay-sports announcer

16.8 million. It will not be as high as previous Winter Olympics because of everything that is going on, but people will still tune in for something different on television.

Dan Serafin, News 12 The Bronx/Brooklyn sports anchor

The days of the Olympic Games being watched by 25 million-plus are over. Without significant changes, we’ll see less than 20 million for these Games tuning in. A more exact prediction? The same 15 million we saw for last summer’s Games.

Andrew Marchand, New York Post sports media columnist and co-host of the Marchand & Ourand Sports Media Podcast

13 million.

This is an Olympics in which NBC is looking for to saying, “We’re onto Paris.”

Ian Casselberry, Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media

15 million. China’s human rights issues, the state of the world, and the time difference in Beijing will keep some viewers away, but people always get caught up in the Olympics.

Michael McCarthy, Senior Writer at Front Office Sports

NBC will have to do some fast talking with advertisers. Audiences crash to average 13.5 million viewers, with fans and advertisers bailing on second Olympic Games during the pandemic.

Lou D’Ermilio, LOUD Communications, former Senior Vice President of Fox Sports media relations

I’m just not feeling a tremendous sense of excitement for the Beijing Winter Games. Maybe it’s the lingering impact of the virus dampening the festive atmosphere typically associated with the games, or the longer NFL season, but something’s missing. So, I’m predicting the audience will average 18.5 million – still impressive, but a bit lower than PyeongChang four years ago.

Richard Deitsch, sports media columnist at The Athletic and host of the Sports Media podcast

I imagine I won’t be alone here in my prediction: I think we are looking at the least-watched Olympic Games on record. 13.8 million viewers.

Patrick Crakes, Crakes Media Consulting, former Senior Vice President of Fox Sports Senior Vice President Programming in Research & Content Strategy

The 2022 Winter Olympic Games face a unique combination of head winds vs. previous editions. The list includes a continuing global pandemic, restrictions on at-site attendance, potential quarantines of athletes, and geo-political issues. Toss into that mix all the “normal” viewing hurdles faced producing live events for a U.S. audience from a challenging time zone (live events happen while everyone is asleep) along with the continued media distribution evolution and its clear NBC has quite the task in front of it viewing wise. As a result, it’s easy to suggest an all-time Olympics low for viewing but there are some favorable strategic cards that NBC will be able to play. First, most viewers will still interact with the Winter Olympics via curated and live broadcast presentations on NBC, USA Network and CNBC. Second, the inclusion of Out of Home (OOH) viewing for the first time during a Winter Olympics should provide an organic 7-10% lift to viewing. Third, NBC will have a huge promotional platform in the middle of the Olympics thanks to the Super Bowl as well as a few highly viewed programming hours given the Olympics are the SB lead out. Fourth, live digital streaming of the Olympics on Peacock will not cannibalize presentations on NBC, USA and CNBC but rather will serve as both incremental reach and promotion vehicle for content on sister networks. As a result, I see the Winter Olympics averaging 15.0 million viewers across various NBC networks and digital platforms in Prime – beating marketplace expectations despite being the least watched Olympics ever. Prime viewing aside, I expect reach to be quite strong and in the context of nearly any media event on any platform over the last several years the Winter Olympics will have a dominant advantage across all strategic metrics.

Dan Cohen, Senior Vice President of Octagon Sports and Entertainment Network

Unfortunately, this may be a lower than usual Winter Olympics average viewership. I will go with 16.7 million.

Bill Shea, senior writer at The Athletic

We’re likely gonna average 11.5-14 million in primetime overall. A little higher on marquee nights, lower on other nights. Also: < A HREF="" target="">The 2022 Olympics Are Here But Will It Bring A Boost for NBC’s Peacock Service?

To recap, here are the predictions in sorted order (you may click on their name for their respective analyses)

Name Viewers
(in millions)
Ken Fang 9.5
Marc Berman 10.9
Douglas Pucci 11.0
Bill Shea 11.5
Timothy Burke 12.0
Jason Jacobs 12.1
Jon Lewis 12.2
Ryan Glasspiegel 13.0
Chad Finn 13.0
Andrew Marchand 13.0
Michael McCarthy 13.5
David Barron 13.8
Richard Deitsch 13.8
Jonathan Tannenwald 14.0
Maury Brown 14.9
Ian Casselberry 15.0
Dan Serafin 15.0
Patrick Crakes 15.0
Dan Cohen 16.7
Scott Nolte 16.8
Lou D’Ermilio 18.5
Philip Swann 19.0