The Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony, delayed a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, drew 16.7 million viewers for NBC on Friday, the smallest audience for the network broadcast in the past 33 years, according to data from the Comcast-owned NBCUniversal on Saturday.
The TV audience dropped 37% from the Rio de Janeiro opening ceremony in 2016, when 26.5 million people watched, and 59% from 2012, when 40.7 million people watched the London opener. The Tokyo ratings factored in both the live broadcast early Friday morning and a primetime re-airing.
Reuters described Friday's fall, the lowest since the 1988 Seoul Games, as a "steep drop."
Taking into account viewers on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app, 17 million people watched the ceremony, according to NBCUniversal. The streaming audience on those platforms increased 76% from the 2018 PyeongChang opening ceremony and 72% from 2016 in Rio.
By way of comparison, analysts noted that Friday's TV broadcast drew fewer viewers than "Sunday Night Football" and Oprah Winfrey's bombshell interview on CBS with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry in March.
"Your first benchmark of Olympic viewing over the next two weeks and not a happy one for NBCUniversal," tweeted sports writer Richard Deitsch.
NBC Sports reacted to the comparisons by tweeting out some "context," noting that in the last five years award shows are down 68-72% in viewership.
While most Olympic opening ceremonies have enjoyed packed stadiums, Friday's unprecedented event featured only 1,000 spectators in the stands, one of whom was first lady Jill Biden. Organizers had initially planned to allow Olympic venues to be filled to 50% capacity but crowds not to exceed 10,000. However, they ultimately decided against spectators following a recent rise in COVID cases that prompted Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to announce a state of emergency.
"Taking into consideration the impact of the delta strain, and in order to prevent the resurgence of infections from spreading across the country, we need to step up virus prevention measures," Suga said of the decision.
Japan's state of emergency that will last through Aug. 22. The Olympics began July 23 and run through Aug. 8. The Paralympics will take place Aug. 24.