The big Olympics story didn’t play out on TV

Linear TV ratings are way down, streaming left much to be desired but the Games won a gold on TikTok.

Headlines about the Tokyo Olympics final ratings tally this week were all doom and gloom, as the Games suffered historically low primetime viewership.

NBC primetime ratings declined 42% over the Rio Summer Games in 2016, drawing in just 15.5 million viewers over its 17-day run. They were the lowest figures since NBC began broadcasting the Olympics in 1988, spurring headlines describing the decline as a “crater,”“spiral” and “faceplant.”

But take a more nuanced view and you’ll see people were enjoying the Olympics exactly the same way they consume any content today: on social media and often in bite-sized, on-demand chunks.

NBCUniversal said viewers consumed 100 billion minutes of Olympics content across its platforms, including NBCOlympics.com, the NBC Sports app, Peacock and NBC Sports Digital. The volume of daily tweets about the Olympics grew 852% since the Games started, and @Simone_Biles and @NBCOlympics were the first and second most mentioned handles on Twitter in the U.S. throughout.

But the real action played out on TikTok, where athletes posted raw, unfiltered looks behind the scenes of the Olympic Village that made viewers feel they were there, too. It’s part of the trend, boosted by the NCAA’s new name, image and likeness policy, of athletes being celebrated (and endorsed) not just for their physical abilities, but also their actions, activism and personalities.

With the average age of an Olympic athlete just 26 years old, this generation of Olympians is native to TikTok. Allowed to use social media in the Olympic village for the first time, athletes provided a peek behind the curtain at the Games that Glamour aptly described as “a cross between summer camp and Bachelor in Paradise.”

NBC benefited from TikTok's buzz. The @NBCOlympics’ channel increased its followers by more than 348% to 1.5 million since the opening ceremonies aired, NBCU said. Videos tagged #TokyoOlympics got more than 4.3 billion views and 329,000 video creations on TikTok.

A major missing piece of the puzzle, however, is how the Olympics performed on NBC’s streaming service Peacock. The broadcaster has only made vague comments about the platform, such as the Olympics were Peacock’s “best” two weeks since its launch, without sharing specific subscriber or viewership numbers. My sense is if Peacock had amazing numbers to share, we’d have heard about them.

Peacock was difficult to navigate and people were upset that big ticket events such as the men’s basketball games were behind a paywall. NBC was banking on the Olympics as a big driver of sign-ups to Peacock, which by all accounts seems to have been a miss. It’s a worrying sign for the platform, NBCU’s big bet on streaming, which has just 54 million users compared to Netflix’s 200 million.

As the Olympics becomes less pomp and circumstance and more reality TV, media coverage and advertiser integrations must adapt with it.

For advertisers, perhaps the lesson here isn’t that the Olympics are dying, but, like everything else in the media landscape, evolving. As NPR put it, “The days when the Olympics were appointment television for most viewers seem to be ending.” The bigger picture is that creating a strategy around “appointment viewing” might be antiquated in the TikTok age.

Despite the unique challenges around the pandemic this year, the Olympics brand still has a great halo effect. NBC said co-branded vignettes within the Games drive higher brand memorability, likeability, opinion and effectiveness than competitive placements, and 45% of people are more likely to purchase from a company that advertises during the Games.

As cord cutting faces record increases, viewership of events on live TV, from the Oscars to the Super Bowl, will continue to drop. Marketers should instead focus on how to tap into the energy and buzz around the athletes and their fans and communities on social media to leverage the sheen around the Olympics brand when the Beijing 2022 Winter Games roll around shortly.

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