5 ideas for NBC to stop the Olympics TV ratings decline

The 2022 Winter Olympics are over, and once again NBC is dealing with headlines like these:

Winter Olympics end with smallest audience ever

Beijing Olympic ratings were the worst of any winter games

Winter Olympics deliver smallest viewing audience ever

The persistent “worst Olympics ever” narrative is even leading to articles questioning the business case for NBC’s long-term multi-billion rights deal. 

Declining broadcast TV ratings are nothing new and certainly much of the Games’ plummet is due to factors not deriving from the competition. But that doesn’t make NBC blameless. I think it’s missing the mark on how to view its Olympics deal in the context of the modern entertainment landscape. As I’ve said before, sports are just another type of content now. It’s not “sports and Netflix”, it’s “content”.

NBC stood up its own streaming platform—Peacock—so I’m certain its corporate brass understand it at least part of the way. To put a stop to headlines like these the network’s suits need to treat their Olympics deal as an exclusive library of content no different than they do the Law & Order franchise.

Here’s a look at what great content factories do versus what NBC does with the Olympics.

Great content factories: Have a single platform for delivering content with personalized recommendation engines.

NBC has: Three different apps that present the same content to everyone.

The NBC app hasn’t worked on my Apple TV in more than a week covering the last two days of the Olympics and the Law & Order return. At first crashed after the logo screen. Now it sits on the logo screen indefinitely.

But all was not lost because I can also stream on the Peacock and NBC Sports apps. Wait, why is NBC streaming across three separate apps? There aren’t three Netflixes. There’s just Netflix. What sense does it make to spread your audience across multiple platforms and dilute your ability to scale technology? Do they have a cross-platform profile of me so NBC Sports knows what I was watching on NBC main? This is as dumb as if Hulu separate apps for OTT cable and its owned content library.

I don’t understand NBC’s failure here. If the network wants advertisers to believe its streaming platforms can deliver value that makes up for the decline in linear TV ratings it has to do better.  

(I should also note this is a bigger problem for NBC than the Olympics. Did you know there’s no Golf Channel app for Apple TV? Or Roku. Or Fire TV. You have to find Golf Channel buried in the NBC Sports App or deep in the on-screen guide in the NBC app. This is golf we’re talking about. A sport with obsessive fans. NBC boasts more than 2,200 hours of live golf coverage with no dedicated OTT streaming app. Unreal.)

Great content: Follows a formula the audience is familiar with.

NBC Olympics coverage: Presents Olympics events differently than any other sporting event.

We hear this all the time: “Sports alone won’t draw an audience for the Olympics. You have to tell the human interest stories behind the athletes.” That’s not wrong, but I think declining broadcast ratings show this approach to covering the Games has failed.

Because here’s the thing: Americans watch sports. A lot. That’s conditioned us to receiving sports content in a certain structure. We expect a beginning, consistent action, innings or halftimes to mark key points in the contest, and drama that builds toward a definitive conclusion. 

In my viewing experience NBC consistently fails to present Olympic events in that structure. It spends too much timing cutting away to other sports or sandwiching features throughout the actual game play. That’s jarring for viewers because it clashes with our conditioning. Imagine if Amazon made you watch 15 minutes of backstory on Rachel Brosnahan in the middle of Mrs. Maisel. You’d tune out.

NBC has gone so far down this road that sports don’t look like sporting events anymore. Its broadcasts are too often weird mashups of multiple sports with no dramatic flow, as if the network treats the 3 hours of primetime coverage as the event instead of, you know, the actual competitions. How are we supposed to be engaged with figure skating when there’s a 30-minute half-pipe qualifying segment in the middle of the men’s short program? 

(Side note: I never want to see qualifying on primetime Olympics coverage. Ever. We tune in to see people win and lose medals, not to see them advance to the next round.)

This is sort of understandable when the Games are in a timezone that allows them to be carried live. NBC and the other global broadcast partners have to work with the International Olympic Committee on this. Olympic Games are made-for-TV events, not made-for-in-person events. The IOC must be willing to manipulate the schedule and timing of its events to produce the most compelling sports content possible or it simply won’t provide viewers a compelling reason to tune in.

It’s different when the Games are held in Beijing or Tokyo and primetime is mostly tape delayed. When that’s the case there’s zero excuse to not edit the events together into a format American viewers are used to. Who cares if a sliver of the audience saw the result online 13 hours ago? Without seeing NBC’s internal data I venture to guess the vast majority of the primetime audience watches tape-delayed events not knowing the outcome. Build content for them. The glorious thing about media in 2022 is you can stream the event live for people who want to get up at 3am and air it all again in primetime. What a time to be alive.

Great content factories: Build our bond with actors and writers.

NBC: Has too few endearing broadcasters.

How can NBC create connection with viewers when Olympic athletes come and go? By giving us consistent broadcasters. Voices like Jim McKay, Bob Costas and Al Michaels are part of Olympic history precisely because we repeatedly associated them with the Games’ biggest moments and brightest stars. 

Just like having great writers helps publishers build a loyal user base, great broadcasters can help NBC build a connection to viewers that endures from Games to Games. We should want to tune in for Mike Tirico or Ted Robinson (who’s buried on short track speed skating) as much as we want to see the athletes. We’re never going to have that connection with Bill Doleman, Shane Bacon, Leigh Diffey, Steve Schlanger, Jason Knapp, Trace Worthington or Todd Harris. I devoured primetime content for the past two Winter Olympics and still had to look up those names. Hollywood content studios already know viewers will watch a show just because it’s from Shonda Rhimes or stars an actor who they locked up in a first-look deal. NBC has to approach its broadcasters the same way if it wants to build an audience that will tune in every two years. 

But here’s the problem: Unlike FOX, CBS and ABC/ESPN, NBC lacks the pro and college sports deals necessary for discovering and grooming new voices. Instead the network focuses on marquee deals with the NFL, USGA, Notre Dame football and Triple Crown horse racing. You’re not going to put green play-by-play announcers on those properties. Without a farm system there’s really no way to find someone new without poaching them from one of the bigger sports networks.

I think there’s a way out of this though, and it leads to my next obstacle for NBC to tackle…

Great content platforms: Keep you coming back for more.

NBC: All but ignores Olympic sports outside the Games.

In a world where sports are just content you can’t rely on drawing a massive audience with infrequent tentpole content. I’m aware of no television show or publisher who succeeds putting out content once every four years. Yet that is exactly how NBC treats the Olympics. No wonder it’s hemorrhaging viewers. You can’t expect anyone to be loyal to that content calendar. TV shows put out new seasons every year for a reason. 

Fixing this is where things get serious and expensive for the network. 

Most of us pay no attention to Olympic sports outside of the Summer and Winter Games. NBC needs to change this behaviour and view the cost as a necessary investment to get a return on the $7,750,000,000 it spent buying Olympic rights. NBC Sports Network would have been—should have been—the perfect platform for this. Heads should roll at NBC HQ for that failure because it directly relates to being unable to build a stable audience for the real Olympic Games. The stakes are too high to fall on your face this hard and keep your job. But it happened and it’s time to figure out how to use its remaining properties to help these sports earn a bigger piece of our sports consciousness. 

The IOC has a role to play here, too. To keep itself relevant it needs broadcasters. Broadcasters need advertisers. Advertisers follow viewers. The IOC has to understand all of that is downstream from expanding the fan base of Olympic sports. It should view this similar to MBL’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities or First Tee, a joint nonprofit funded by some of American golf’s most prominent governing bodies.

Great content platforms: Make it easier to find what you want.

NBC: Does anyone know when curling is on?

The last obstacle NBC has to solve should be the easiest: Offering a clear broadcast schedule. We’re living in the age of apps. We should be able to download the NBC app and set up custom schedules with alerts when a broadcast goes live (and just for when a broadcast goes live, not with the results). If there’s a way to do this, I couldn’t find it. 

Trying to deduce the schedule for a particular sport through the OTT apps brings us back to the first problem: The apps are terrible. They’re hard to navigate and there’s almost no consistency between NBC, Peacock and NBC Sports. But for the peacock logo you wouldn’t even know they’re from the same company. If you’re not compelled by the announcer and you haven’t watched it in four years, are you really going to work this hard to find when rhythmic gymnastics is going to be on? Well okay maybe yes because it’s the best Summer Olympics sport. But you get my drift. At some point if content is too hard to find you move on to something else. I can tell you right now new episodes of 1883 come out on Sundays, Mrs. Maisel on Fridays and Law & Order on Thursdays. I should be able to tell you when the ski cross final airs.

Thank you, loyal reader, for sticking with this incredibly long post. The moral of the story boils down to this: NBC seems willing to buy the rights to broadcast Olympic content, but unwilling to invest in making it successful. It will continue to face recurring stories about historically low TV ratings until it recognizes that sports are just content and figures out how to deliver the Games in a way that’s relevant to the modern audience.