As the Winter Olympics returns to the network this Thursday, less than a week after NBC’s Super Bowl LII telecast, the Peacock network is experiencing a February to remember. The last time the same network aired both events was CBS in 1992 — obviously, the TV landscape has changed a lot since then.
Even as viewership declines for such major live events in the face of so much competition, and broadcast TV struggles to maintain relevancy, NBC will come out of February with a healthy ratings boost from the Super Bowl and Olympics. As a matter of fact, NBC is guaranteed a season-long ratings win this year among adults 18-49 and total viewers thanks to both events, in addition to the network’s NFL football coverage and hit series like “This Is Us” and “The Voice.”
“I think we will be No. 1 in both the demo and in total viewers next year, which is something we haven’t accomplished since 2002,” NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt said last summer, even before the TV season began. “I know sports will play a big part in that, but I’m optimistic we will also hold our 18-49 lead even when sports are factored out.”
NBCUniversal spent at least $1.1 billion for rights to the 2018 Olympics, part of a $4.4 billion deal for four Olympics struck in 2011. Since then, it agreed to another $7.75 billion deal in 2014 to maintain Olympics exclusivity through 2032. It was a big bet, but live sports events are among the last sure things in TV. According to NBC, the network will take in around $900 million in ad sales, up from $800 million for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
But the 2018 Winter Games come at a transitional time for the Peacock, broadcast television, the Olympics and the nation as a whole. Will audiences pay much attention to PyeongChang? Here are a few factors playing into how audiences receive this Olympics.
NBC believes the time zone difference may actually benefit primetime, which will air live in all time zones.
South Korea is 14 hours ahead of New York, which times out well for NBC. Many of the major competitions take place in the morning, in order to take advantage of natural light outdoors. “So many of the marquee events, figure skating and Alpine skiing, among others, are taking place in the morning in Korea, which is live on primetime the night before,” said Jim Bell, NBC’s Olympics production and programming president.
But perhaps even more critical to NBC, West Coast viewers will get to watch the network’s primetime Olympics coverage at the same time as their East Coast counterparts, resolving past complaints that tape-delayed coverage ruined the surprise. That’s a necessary byproduct of this social media age, but also a nod to the fact that viewers can now stream NBC’s full coverage on any device.
NBC will almost fully livestream its coverage — and hopes to reflect that viewership in its Total Audience Delivery metric.
According to NBC, the Total Audience Delivery primetime measurement will include broadcast television, cable television, and streaming on phones, tablets, desktops, and connected TVs. That number will be posted daily between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. ET, the network said. NBC first used the system in 2016 during the Rio Summer Olympics. NBC is planning more than 1,800 of live streaming coverage on NBCOlympics.com and its NBC Sports app, and more than 2,400 total hours of coverage from PyeongChang across multiple channels and platforms — the most ever for a Winter Olympics.
The 2014 Sochi games averaged 21.4 million viewers in primetime, down from Vancouver in 2010 (24.4 million).
Katie Couric returns to NBC to host the Opening Ceremonies, while Mike Tirico replaces Bob Costas as primetime host.
It’s a changing of the guard in many ways at NBC, with no Costas and no Matt Lauer on hand for the first Olympics in recent memory. Lauer, of course, exited NBC last year in a hail of controversy following sexual harassment allegations, while Costas retired.
“As I’ve been fond of saying to people, ‘You follow a Bob Costas. You don’t replace him,'” Tirico said at the Television Critics Association press tour last summer. “And I’ll try to do the job in my own style that I’ve been showing to everyone for the last 25 years on TV. For me, Rio last year was my first experience of covering the Olympic Games. What I found out was the same thing that I thought on the other side as I watched with my family over the years, winter or summer. The Olympics are special. They’re still great. It’s one of the very few things that still brings the world together for a common goal. And maybe more than ever we need that in our world. So I’m excited to see how that plays out coming up in February for Korea.”
Tirico will host the Opening Ceremonies with Couric, who gives NBC viewers a bit of continuity to an earlier era, when she was part of the dominant “Today” show team with Bryant Gumbel, then Lauer. The Olympics will also give NBC a platform to showcase its new “Today” duo, Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb.
Olympic excitement — and ratings — will depend on U.S. performance. And so far, there appears to be fewer big-name gold medal contenders this time.
In particular, the female figure skating competition is traditionally the most-watched portion of the Winter Olympics — but the U.S. doesn’t have a favorite for the top prize in PyeongChang.
Among the up and coming favorites this time out are alpine ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin, male figure skater Nathan Chen, snowboarder Chloe Kim, and speed skater Heather Bergsma. Meanwhile, famous past Olympic gold medalists including Lindsey Vonn, Shaun White and Maddie Bowman are also in the hunt. Expect all of these names, and more, to be featured front and center during NBC’s coverage.
As live events, like everything else, experience audience erosion, the competition is more aggressively counterprogramming PyeongChang.
Not even the Super Bowl was immune to viewership declines, posting its smallest viewership since 2009 last Sunday. Audiences now have plenty of options, from streaming services to social media, to distract them from even the biggest live events. But NBC will also face competition from traditional rivals, which aren’t playing dead during this Winter Olympics. CBS’ “Celebrity Big Brother” is already making headlines, thanks to houseguest Omarosa, and the premiere opened to solid ratings on Wednesday night — averaging 7.3 million viewers and a 1.8 rating with adults 18-49. “Celebrity Big Brother” will continue for three weeks, up until a two-hour finale on Feb. 25. Meanwhile, ABC has its own counterprogramming plans with “The Bachelor Winter Games,” as past contestants from around the world compete in various events.
The USA Gymnastics sexual assault scandal casts a pall over United States Olympics Committee just as the Winter Games begins.
The Olympics should be a time of celebrating our finest athletes, but right now it also brings to mind the horrific tale of Larry Nassar, the sports doctor who is alleged to have abused at least 265 young gymnasts. Nassar has finally been brought to justice and will spend the rest of his days in jail, but the impact of his actions will never be undone. The U.S Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics have been criticized for not acting earlier on complaints of abuse, and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators have called for an investigation into their inaction.
Oscar contender “I, Tonya” could add to the conversation during this year’s Figure Skating competition.
Talk about timing: The film, starring Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding, explores the 1994 incident in which rival Nancy Kerrigan was injured by Harding’s bodyguard. “I, Tonya” has criticized for glossing over the truth about Harding’s involvement in the incident. But that has only added to interest in the movie, as well as that figure skating competition.
The threat of conflict with North Korea hangs in the air.
North and South Korea have agreed to march together in the Opening Ceremonies under a united flag, and North and South Korea also formed a joint women’s hockey team. The cooperation is remarkable given the ongoing hostilities between the U.S. and North Korea, as heated rhetoric has led to increased concern about nuclear war. “I don’t think you can really have any sports event these days, least of all an Olympics, without there being some element of geopolitics, ” Bell said. “I don’t think it’s something that we particularly are geared up for the Olympics. We are geared up for the sports to tell the stories of the athletes. Our colleagues at NBC News are there if needed. We work very closely with the IOC, our own security people, and local security people to feel like we know we are going to be safe, and we are there to cover the stories.”
Vice President Mike Pence’s presence is already more distraction than help.
Openly gay Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon passed on a meeting with Pence, reportedly because of the vice president’s stance on LGBTQ issues. But then it became a bigger issue when Pence took to Twitter and blamed the story on “fake news.”
Besides NBC’s patented emotional story packages on Olympic hopefuls, keep an eye out for guest contributors including chef David Chang and “Saturday Night Live” star Leslie Jones.
Chang, the Momofuku impresario who is also the star of Netflix’s new series “Ugly Delicious,” is in PeyongChang to introduce viewers to Korean cuisine. And Jones is back after her tweets as a Rio Summer Games fan in 2016 led NBC to send her there. “Experiencing the Olympics through the lens of Leslie is unlike anything else. Her passion for Team USA is contagious, and her adventures in South Korea should be fascinating,” Bell said.
IndieWire spoke to NPR’s “All Things Considered” on Wednesday on what to expect as NBC once again telecasts the Olympics, including some of these issues. Listen below!
NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics begins Thursday night at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT with the Figure Skating – Team Event, live. The Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony airs on Friday at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT.