NBC is giving advertisers who bought airtime during the Tokyo Olympics extra commercials due to underwhelming ratings for this year’s 2020 Olympic Games, fueled by a pandemic-weary population and backlash against woke athletes protesting the U.S. flag and national anthem.
NBC Sports Chairman Pete Bevacqua insisted to the Associated Press that the network would still make money on the 2020 Olympics – but left out details about how much.
NBC’s primetime coverage of the Tokyo Olympics on July 26 averaged 14.7 million viewers -- for a 49% drop compared to the equivalent night from the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games and 53% less than the 2012 London Olympics. The opening ceremonies saw their lowest viewership since 1988.
Variety senior TV editor Brian Steinberg wrote that the drop has spurred "advertiser anxiety" which hasn’t been eased by the news that legendary American gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from team competition and fan favorite Naomi Osaka was eliminated from the tennis medal competition.
He quoted a media buying executive who said the early viewership numbers "clearly are not what NBC, our agency or our clients were looking for" from costly investment.
"When you look at the numbers, it's hard to be pleased with them," Andy Billings, director of the sports communications program at the University of Alabama, told the AP. "It's probably NBC's worst-case scenario, but it's probably a worst-case scenario that they would have been able to predict months ago."
Viewership has lagged behind the Rio coverage by roughly half on numerous nights of this year’s competition.
And woke protests by American athletes condemning the U.S. or national anthem have done little to attract new viewers while alienating Republican spectators, according to Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey. The lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic have also taken a toll.
Last week, the university published a poll that found a third fewer Americans were interested in watching the games – a whopping 43% of respondents said they had little interest in watching compared to just 16% who had a lot.
And while 55% of Americans felt it was a good idea to hold the postponed 2020 Games this year, 36% said it wasn’t.
"The Olympic spirit is a bit dampened this year," Murray said. "The delay from last year and lack of spectators have taken the edge off the typical anticipation and excitement for this event. But the emergence of Black Lives Matter in the sports world has also led to a backlash among some Americans."
Not all athletes have protested the flag. The woke women’s soccer team had to settle for bronze last week, but the U.S. men’s basketball team took gold and star Kevin Durant derided media critics by telling one to "act like you’re American."
And U.S. wrestler Tamyra Mensah-Stock wrapped herself in the flag and declared "I love representing the U.S., I freaking love living here," after becoming the first female Black American wrestler to win Olympic gold.
But images of other athletes protesting the flag and the anthem haven’t helped bring back alienated viewers.
Just over half of the Republicans who said they weren’t interested cited the political protests, and the same percentage of Democrats blamed the effects of the pandemic – small crowds and less competition.
And the university also quoted independents as opposing the protests.
"The people we sent over aren’t representing the country," one Maryland man, identified as an independent in his 40s, told the pollsters. "They’re kneeling at the flag."
He wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
"I don’t want to see virtue signaling," a 45-year-old New Jersey woman, also an independent, said. "Be a proud American."
The decline in TV viewers doesn’t tell the entire story – more people are watching online and via streaming platforms, where advertising revenue is significantly lower.
Fox News’ Brian Flood and the Associated Press contributed to this report.