NBC is touting its coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympics as the “most successful media event in history.” And to be sure, the massive effort the company put into live streaming and digital efforts from Rio de Janeiro paid off pretty well.

But in terms of TV ratings? Not so much. The games end as the lowest-rated and least-watched Summer Olympics since 2000.

Whatever metric NBC is using to uphold its “most successful” claim isn’t clear. Streaming of the Rio Games was indeed way up vs. 2012 in London: 100 million unique users (a 29 percent bump from 2012) streamed 3.3 billion minutes of the games; 2.7 billion of those minutes were devoted to live streams, the rest to replays and highlights. The live streaming was more than the combined live-streamed minutes of all prior Olympics (1.48 billion).

Of course, there was a lot more to see this time around: NBC live-streamed 4,500 hours of competition compared to 3,500 hours four years ago. Still, that’s an impressive feat, and the one thing most Olympics observers seem to agree NBC did well this time around was its digital product.

But the on-air Olympics, even with simultaneous cable and live-streaming added to NBC’s prime-time total, are down. In both viewers and household ratings (which are useful for historical comparisons), Rio 2016 represents the lowest-rated Summer Olympics since 2000 in Sydney and the second-lowest since NBC took over the summer games in 1988. Here’s how the NBC-only numbers stack up:

Year Site Viewers (millions) Household rating
1996 Atlanta 33.3 21.8
2012 London 31.1 17.5
2008 Beijing 27.7 16.2
1992 Barcelona 25.9 17.1
1988 Seoul 25.3 17.1
2004 Athens 24.6 15.0
2016 Rio de Janeiro 24.5 14.8
2000 Sydney 21.5 13.8


London was NBC’s highest-rated Summer Olympics staged outside the United States. This year’s games were down 21 percent in viewers and 15 percent in households vs. 2012 for all nights. (NBC has been touting the numbers for the 15 nights of competition as closer to London’s average, but those exclude the opening and closing ceremonies, which took big hits vs. four years ago.)

In adults 18-49, NBC’s coverage averaged a 6.9 rating, a 27 percent drop from the 9.5 for London 2012. They’re also lower than the 7.5 average for the NBA Finals in June.

In the realm of dubious statistics, the “reach” number — i.e., the number of people who watched at least a minute of Olympics coverage on NBC — is down as well. NBC says 198 million people gave at least a passing glance at the games this year, down from the press release-leading number of 219.4 million in 2012.

The network is also playing up NBC’s margin of victory (249 percent in viewers over the combined average of ABC, CBS and FOX) over the other broadcast networks as second only to London. That may say more about the overall decline in broadcast viewership than anything.

Here is the final comparison of the 2016 and 2012 Olympics:

Day 2016 total audience (millions) 2016 NBC only (millions) 2012 total audience (millions) 2016 total HH rating 2012 total HH rating
Opening ceremony (Fri.) 26.5 26.5 40.7 13.9 21.0
1st Sat. 23.5 20.6 28.7 13.0 15.8
1st Sun. 31.8 29.8 36.0 17.3 19.8
1st Mon. 31.5 28.9 31.6 18.1 18.0
1st Tues. 36.1 33.4 38.7 20.5 21.8
1st Weds. 28.6 26.4 30.8 16.5 17.9
1st Thurs. 33.0 31.2 36.8 18.9 21.1
2nd Fri. 26.0 24.0 28.5 15.0 16.2
2nd Sat. 26.8 25.5 28.0 15.0 15.9
2nd Sun. 28.1 26.7 31.3 15.8 17.5
2nd Mon. 25.5 24.2 26.6 14.9 15.8
2nd Tues. 25.6 24.1 30.1 14.3 17.6
2nd Weds. 22.1 20.7 29.1 13.3 16.8
2nd Thurs. 22.9 21.7 22.9 13.6 13.6
3rd Fri. 21.1 20.0 22.5 12.3 13.2
3rd Sat. 16.3 15.4 21.8 9.6 12.6
Closing ceremony 17.0 17.0 31.0 9.8 22.9
Averages 26.02 24.48 30.30 14.8 17.5

Note: The 2012 total audience is NBC only, as there was no simultaneous streaming or cable coverage in primetime. Source: NBC/The Nielsen Company.

Posted by:Rick Porter

Rick Porter has been covering TV since the days when networks sent screeners on VHS, one of which was a teaser for the first season of "American Idol." He's left-handed, makes a very solid grilled cheese and has been editor of TV by the Numbers since October 2015. He lives in Austin.

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