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By Helen Coster
July 24 (Reuters) – NBC’s broadcast of the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics drew 16.7 million viewers, the smallest U.S. television audience for the event in 33 years, according to preliminary data from Comcast-owned NBCUniversal on Saturday.
Across all platforms, including NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app, 17 million people watched the ceremony, NBCUniversal said in an email.
Streaming audiences on those platforms grew 76% from the 2018 PyeongChang opening ceremony and 72% from the 2016 Rio opener, reflecting a change in viewing habits.
Friday’s audience shows a steep decline, despite difficult comparisons to previous opening ceremonies when viewers had fewer streaming options.
The TV audience of the Tokyo opener dropped 37% from 2016, when 26.5 million people watched the Rio de Janeiro Games opener, and 59% from 2012, when 40.7 million people entered the ceremony. London viewed.
It was the lowest audience for the opening ceremony since the 1988 Seoul Games, which drew 22.7 million TV viewers. It was also lower than the 1992 Barcelona Games, when 21.6 million people voted, according to Nielsen data.
The numbers in Rio, London, Barcelona and Seoul reflect the final rating data not yet available for the Tokyo Games opener.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Friday’s scaled-down opening event took place with fewer than 1,000 in attendance at the Olympic Stadium under strict social distancing rules.
Major absences included former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had lured the games to Tokyo, and top sponsors as the event faced strong opposition in COVID-weary Japan.
With Tokyo 13 hours ahead of the US East Coast, NBC broadcast the ceremony live for the first time in the morning, at 6:55 a.m. ET Friday. NBC’s taped, prime-time broadcast began at 7:30 p.m. ET.
In its prime-time coverage, NBC acknowledged the pandemic and its toll, while presenting the Olympics as a positive event.
“Absence makes the heart grow faster,” said host Savannah Guthrie, co-anchor of NBC News’ morning show “Today.” “There’s nothing like an opening ceremony to really get you excited for the Olympics.”
NBCUniversal has been aggressively pushing its digital platforms this year, viewing the Olympics as a vital subscriber driver for its Peacock streaming service.
The company plans to broadcast an “unprecedented” 7,000 hours of Olympics coverage through its multiple television networks and Peacock. These include some of the most anticipated events, such as gymnastics and US Men’s basketball, on the streaming platform. It will also stream more than 5,500 hours of the Olympics on NBCOlympics.com and its sports app.
Not all athletes attended the team parade during the opening ceremony, due to regulations requiring many to fly in just before their games and leave shortly after to limit social contact.
The decline in ratings is part of a trend among live TV events, including awards shows and sports.
February’s Super Bowl broadcast on CBS, a part of ViacomCBS, averaged about 92 million viewers, according to Nielsen data, the lowest since 2006. The April Oscars broadcast on Walt Disney Co.’s ABC broadcast network was averaged 10.4 million, a record low, Nielsen said. Audiences for the most recent Emmys and Grammys also hit new lows.
NBCUniversal, which paid $7.65 billion to extend its U.S. broadcast rights to the Olympics through 2032, considers the Games a “healing” event, despite skepticism from many Japanese citizens about the wisdom of holding even a scaled-down Games during a pandemic.
In June, NBCUniversal said it had signed more than 120 advertisers for the games, more than any other broadcast of the Olympics. An NBCUniversal spokesperson that month said the company was on track to exceed the $1.2 billion in ads sold for the 2016 Rio Olympics, but declined to say whether it would exceed the $1.25 billion mark. which was sold last year before the Tokyo Games were postponed.
Ratings are not an indication of profitability. Despite a decline in overall viewership of the 2012 London Olympics, NBC made more than $250 million from its coverage of the Rio Olympics, with ad sales increasing more than 20% over London.
In June, NBCUniversal Chief Executive Jeff Shell said the Tokyo Games could be the most profitable Olympics in NBC history. (Reporting by Helen Coster; editing by Richard Chang and Leslie Adler)