NBCUniversal is about to begin broadcasting the second half of a rare Olympics doubleheader — and fatigue has set in.
The Winter Games in Beijing begin Feb. 4, just six months after the close of the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games that were postponed from 2020 because of the pandemic. The Winter Games also overlap with the Super Bowl, which airs on NBC Feb. 13.
In an era of waning live viewership for the Olympics, NBCU is facing a huge challenge of attracting eyeballs to an event taking place amid a diplomatic boycott of the host country over human-rights violations. Mix in Beijing’s very limited group of spectators due to the omicron surge and the fact that the primetime TV audience for the Tokyo games dropped more than 40% compared with the 2016 Rio Olympics, and it’s clear NBCUniversal has quite a slalom to navigate.
Martin Conway, adjunct professor in Georgetown University’s sports industry management program, says next month’s challenges are “complicated and compounded” by the fact that the Winter Games have fewer stars than the summer events. Plus, Beijing is not exactly Aspen.
“We don’t think of Beijing as a mountaintop, Alps-type environment that the Winter Olympics are typically in,” Conway told Variety. “So this will appear, to people who understand it, more of a manufactured Winter Olympics, as opposed to something in Italy or France or even in Salt Lake City.”
And not only is there definite “Olympic fatigue,” but there’s Olympics-in-Asia fatigue.
“You have the same set of issues with the difference in time zone to the major markets here [Beijing’s clocks are 13 hours ahead of New York City’s], which makes those opening and closing ceremonies and the things that go on as part of the Olympics, but are not the event, just less appealing,” Conway says.
Ahead of the torch lighting in Beijing, NBCU plans to couple the Winter Olympics with Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13 to build anticipation. NBCUniversal executives are calling it an “unprecedented opportunity,” but industry insiders say the tidal wave of ad inventory that needs to be sold at premium rates will be a Herculean effort for the NBC Sports sales team.
“We will capitalize on the Halley’s Comet of media moments because there is simply nothing bigger than having the two biggest media events together at NBC Sports: The Super Bowl and the Olympics occur on the same day and on the same network,” Jenny Storms, chief marketing officer of entertainment and sports at NBCUniversal, said Jan. 19 during an NBC Sports presentation about both mega-sporting events. “It’s an unprecedented opportunity, as we will be reaching, engaging and captivating the largest audiences and telling the greatest story ever told. This will truly be once in a lifetime.”
NBC’s goal is to “fuel cultural relevancy and elicit FOMO through our positioning to motivate fans to tune in for key events,” as Storms put it. There will be more than 2,800 hours of coverage across NBC, Peacock, USA Network, CNBC, NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app from Feb. 2-20.
Sponsors like Toyota and Delta Air Lines are among the nearly 100 advertisers (40 of which are first-timers) that NBCU says it has lined up for the Beijing Olympics. That’s “roughly” what the company says it had at the comparable advance time from the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, which ultimately drew $920 million-plus in U.S. ad sales, a record for the Winter Games.
NBCU is at “exactly the same spot” it was before the PyeongChang Games, “in terms of our sellouts,” according to Dan Lovinger, president of NBCU ad sales and partnerships. The average spend level has “grown slightly,” particularly among returning advertisers, he notes.
Added exposure via the Peacock streaming platform helped give a boost to what was a disappointing turnout for the pandemic-plagued Tokyo Olympics, and it is a big part of NBCU’s strategy for Beijing. According to Lovinger, digital revenue is up double digits.
As in Tokyo, the Beijing games will take place in almost empty arenas to prevent the spread of COVID among athletes, press and spectators. NBCU aims to combat concerns over China and its human-rights record by bringing in journalist Andrew Browne and Yale professor Jing Tsu as expert China analysts to offer commentary during primetime coverage.
“We’re going to be focusing on telling the stories of Team USA and covering the competition,” says Molly Solomon, president and executive producer of NBC Olympics production. “But the world, as we all know, is a really complicated place right now. We understand that there are some difficult issues regarding the host nation, so our coverage will provide perspective on China’s place in the world and the geopolitical context in which these games are being held.”
At a press conference held on the same day as NBCU’s Olympics media presentation, a Beijing 2022 organizing committee official raised the ominous suggestion that Olympic athletes who protest against the government could face cancellation of accreditation or other “punishment.”
As NBCU eyes the finish line of its seven-month Olympic marathon, the only certainty is that the 2024 Summer Games in Paris are but 29 months away.