With the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, NBC is giving a certain segment of the Olympic viewing audience what it’s been demanding for years: live coverage across all time zones in the United States.
The decision is an acknowledgment that the “plausibly live” coverage of past Olympics doesn’t work as well as it did in the pre-streaming, pre-social media era. Pyeongchang is 14 hours ahead of the Eastern time zone in the U.S., so daytime events there can be shown in primetime here.
That’s a good thing for people who don’t want to be “spoiled” by live results and for fans who like the visceral experience of watching live competition. It’s also unlikely to give NBC much of a bump in TV ratings.
NBC will be touting something it calls Total Audience Delivery during the Olympics — a rolled-up measure of broadcast, cable and streaming audience. It’s how the network sold the Olympics to advertisers, and since there will be primetime coverage on other platforms (something that began with the 2016 Summer Olympics; in previous games the broadcast network was the sole primetime outlet) we’ll report that.
But even with the aggregation, it’s likely the Olympics numbers will be down. Thursday’s early combined returns were off 6 percent from the same night in Sochi four years ago. (The NBC-only ratings were off 21 percent, which coincidentally is the same amount ratings for non-sports primetime network shows have declined in the last four years.)
If those early figures hold, streaming is unlikely to make up the entire difference. Data for other sports telecasts tells us the streaming audience is about 1 percent to 2 percent of the total; just over 2 million people streamed the Super Bowl last week, which was 1.9 percent of the total.
Live sports is still about the best way to get a bunch of people watching TV, and therefore watching commercials, at the same time. That’s why NBC and other networks spend so much money on rights packages for the Olympics, the NFL and other sports.
They’re not immune, however, to the larger changes affecting the way people consume television. Ratings for sports haven’t dropped as dramatically as they have for other types of programming, but they have declined.
And consider in February 2014, the three biggest streaming services — Netflix, Amazon and Hulu — had released a total of 18 original series. Those three are releasing 16 shows this month alone.
Times have changed. It would be foolish to expect ratings for the Olympics to somehow remain frozen in some pre-2008 state of glory. They’ll still get big numbers for NBC and its related channels, just not as big as before.