According to the sources I read, Olympic TV viewership was down an average of 45%. Prime time was down 51%. Based on that, the answer to the question is “not really.”
Are people still interested in seeing the world’s greatest athletes compete in sports that push them to the brink of what the human body can accomplish? I would also say the answer is “not really.”
The Olympics are an example of how people engage with media is changing once again, directly as a result of the pandemic. Audiences are fragmenting even more than they did in the last 10 years. It is rare for people to sit down and watch a prime-time show at the scheduled time. Once streaming came along, and specifically YouTube, people started to become accustomed to searching on YouTube and knowing they could almost always find what they were looking for. The pandemic simply accelerated those as more people are spending more time online. These are behavioral changes that are not going away anytime soon.
It should also be noted that watching the Olympics was confusing. There were three “prime-time” shows on TV and multiple online outlets to watch highlights, but it was not easy to watch replays online. I tried to do so using my cable login, but I could never get it to work. I couldn’t see what I wanted on the NBC Sports App, so I simply went to YouTube to find the highlights.
My DVR recorded hours and hours of Olympics coverage, but with the DVR capacity that we have, it would constantly overwrite any of the previous programs. It became frustrating because we could not go back and watch what we missed, so we ended up missing some of the things we really wanted to see. As a result, I would go to YouTube to find it.
Behavioral changes aside, it is also frustrating to know the results from the news reports before I would watch the events. My news alerts would go off all night telling me what was happening in Tokyo and it became impossible to avoid. I don’t mind knowing the end of a book before I read it because I like getting to experience the journey, but that is not always the case when it comes to sports, where a little mystery can be a good thing.
The Olympics are an important event, but the way they are delivered to the masses might not fit the same paradigm as other sports. The international nature of the Olympics makes it exciting, but that also makes it difficult to stay as engaged as you do with your favorite national sports, where the time zones are more conducive to appointment viewing and the storylines are smaller and easier to follow.
When the Olympics are held in Europe or the U.S., it is easier for us to follow because the time zones line up better with how we enjoy media. I realize that is a very ethnocentric statement to make, but I think it can be made for any country. You engage more readily when it is easier for you, and the media has to find a way to generate engagement in unique ways for when the programming is not as easy to deliver.
It will be interesting to watch what happens in seven months when the Winter Olympics air from Beijing. Will the networks change they way they deliver that content, or will it be another 40%-50% viewership slide from previous years?