NBC Chases Olympics Gold in Tokyo Amid Lack of Fans, Missing Athletes

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During the U.S. Olympic trials last month, star gymnast Simone Biles sprinted across the floor, sprung into the air, twisted like a corkscrew and stuck the landing. The crowd inside the St. Louis arena — a mix of masked and unmasked — erupted in a standing ovation.

But when Biles performs at the Tokyo Olympics, which begin on July 23, her performances will be met with fewer cheers. Olympics organizers have banned spectators at events in Japan’s capital as a resurgence of coronavirus cases has forced the government to declare a state of emergency. 

NBC will need to find other ways to inject drama into its Olympics broadcast. 

NBC Chases Olympics Gold in Tokyo Amid Lack of Fans, Missing Athletes

“These are going to be a quiet games,” said Lee Berke, president of LHB Sports Entertainment and Media Inc., a consulting firm. “From a television standpoint, the lack of crowd sound can reduce enthusiasm.”

NBCUniversal, Comcast Corp.’s media division, is facing additional challenges due to the ongoing pandemic. Just days before the games begin, a growing number of Olympic athletes have tested positive for Covid-19, which could complicate the broadcast or even deprive the network of some of its biggest draws. On Sunday, U.S. Tennis star Coco Gauff announced that she had tested positive and would miss the games. 

“It’s increasingly possible that NBC may have to improvise some of its coverage as competitors drop out and events change due to Covid,” Berke said. “There could be last-minute substitutions for athletes, plus the International Olympic Committee may even need to revamp or postpone competitions — all of which would then cause NBC to move around their television schedules.” 

Despite such turbulence, NBC expects to sell more than $1.25 billion in commercials for the Olympics, a new record. This time around, the price of a 30-second Olympics commercial during prime time is about $1.2 million, up about 15% from the Rio games five years ago, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The broadcast coverage will stretch out more than two weeks. If NBC falls short of its viewership promises, as it did during the 2016 Olympics in Rio, it will need to give away free commercial time, which means missing out on additional revenue Comcast uses to help cover the enormously expensive rights that cost the company, on average, about $1.1 billion a year.

Andrew Billings, a professor at the University of Alabama and co-author of the book “Olympic Television: Broadcasting the Biggest Show on Earth,” said viewers will notice the empty venues most acutely during the opening and closing ceremonies. “You tune in for the spectacle of the whole thing — to see the crowd and the electricity inside the stadium,” he said. “That’s the biggest area where the lack of fans will be felt.”

Billings predicts that NBC’s Olympics ratings will top all other programs during the next few weeks by a wide margin, but will still fall short of the summer games in 2016, as a result of the declining viewership across the broader TV landscape. Billings is more interested, he said, in seeing how many people sign up to NBC’s Peacock streaming service to watch the games.

“We’ve moved past the point where prime-time television ratings determine whether NBC’s Olympics contract is succeeding,” he said.

During the 2016 games, an average of about 27.5 million viewers watched in prime time — down from the 2012 Olympics in London, which drew 30.3 million total viewers. Though the TV audience declined in 2016, NBC still managed to book a $250 million profit, more than doubling what it made in 2012, partly because of strong digital ad sales.

At a recent investor conference, NBCUniversal Chief Executive Officer Jeff Shell said the company’s broadcast of the Tokyo Olympics could be its most profitable ever.

NBC Chases Olympics Gold in Tokyo Amid Lack of Fans, Missing Athletes

Televised sports are still recovering from the pandemic. Ratings, in general, are better this year than in 2020. But viewership for some major sports are down from pre-pandemic levels, including the NBA Finals this month. The audience for this year’s Super Bowl was the lowest since 2007. And NBC faces the same challenge it always does with each Olympics, Berke said.

“You’re trying to rev people up to root for a sport that they may not have followed for the past four years,” he said.

With the pandemic forcing sports leagues to play without fans, some broadcasters have piped in fake crowd noise or even added computer-generated fans in the stands. The lack of spectators can have some upsides. It lets viewers hear sounds that would normally get drowned out by crowd noise, such as dialogue between coaches and players. But it’s not ideal. There were moments last year during ESPN’s coverage of MLS soccer games, which were mostly held in empty stadiums, where “it just felt flat,” said Amy Rosenfeld, vice president of production at ESPN.

“I had not realized the dramatic effect that a full crowd really has,” Rosenfeld said. 

Even so, most viewers made do. “None of them said, ‘I’m not going to watch the ESPN game because there’s no audio,’” she added. 

During the Olympics, NBC won’t be piping in artificial noise, but it will enhance certain aspects of the events. “We’re going to have more in-venue audio than ever before to share the sounds of the competition,” Molly Solomon, executive producer of the NBC Olympics broadcast, told reporters recently. “You’re going to hear the sounds of the games like you’ve never heard them before — from the thrashing and splashing in the pool to those intimate conversations between competitors and coaches.”

NBC has also set up “watch parties” in Orlando where it will film families of the competitors reacting to the performances.

NBC has also made sure that the Olympics feel inescapable. NBC will show 7,000 hours across its broadcast and cable channels and digital platforms. Streaming devices like Roku and Apple TV will run promotions for the games. Comcast subscribers will see personalized viewing options. And Snapchat, Twitter and Twitch will host Olympics-themed programming as part of an effort to grab the attention of younger viewers. 

NBC executives say they expect people will tune in because the country is yearning for a chance to share an uplifting experience after a year of isolation.

“The whole world is coming off a global trauma,” Shell said at a press event last month. “And the Olympics is when everyone forgets all that and comes together and celebrates the success and the failure and the triumph and heartbreak.”

At the same event, Savannah Guthrie, co-anchor of NBC’s “Today,” said she hoped the games will be a “healing moment” and a diversion from a year and a half of consuming taped content on streaming services. “We’ve all been binge-watching, but at this point how many crime shows can you watch?” Guthrie said. “‘Tiger King’ is great, but this is the Olympics.”

Jim Bell, executive producer of the last four Olympics for NBC, said that the number of people watching the games has little to do with how many fans are there in person. Instead, the ratings depend mostly on viewers’ interest in the particular athletes, he argued, with Biles being the biggest draw.

“Simone Biles is somebody who is in the conversation for greatest athlete of all time,” Bell said. “You really don’t want to see that happen?”

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