Team USA swimmer Michael Phelps, competing in possibly the last Olympic games of his career, was watched by 32.7 million viewers as he took to the pool for the final time in Rio on Saturday to compete in the Men’s 4×100 Medley relay. While NBC’s Saturday total audience delivery (NBC, cable, and streaming) was only 26.8 million, down from 28 million the same day during the 2012 London games (as reported by Variety) Phelp’s historic race, winning him his Olympic-record 23rd gold medal, spiked viewership an additional 6 million pairs of eyes while he was in the pool.
Though Saturday’s overall ratings do not quite match those of London’s four years ago, they still represent a significant improvement over last week’s opening days, which were marred by disappointing numbers. According to Deadline, this past Saturday’s viewership was up a whopping 23% compared to Saturday of the opening weekend. Nevertheless, the Rio Olympics have been a ratings let-down any way you look at it. Many have pointed to live-streaming Olympic coverage as a reason for low ratings, but ad-buyers don’t care if streaming numbers are great when Nielsen shows TV ratings worse than those of both 2012 and 2008. Also, even when factoring in streaming, total viewership is still down compared to that of the last two games.
These Olympics may serve as a wake-up call to NBC in particular and all networks in general. The Olympic Games, a two-week extravaganza of live sports, was considered so unique that it could transcend millennial’s addiction to on-demand streaming’s lack of commercials and extreme convenience. However, these games have proved that assumption incorrect, as young viewers have left Olympics viewing in record numbers. Perhaps Stranger Things on Netflix is higher on the must-see TV list than watching Phelps compete in Rio for those who have adopted streaming as their primary source of media consumption, but with the seemingly endless amount of commercials NBC has been airing between every individual aspect of an event, who can blame them? But while the numbers are down from games past, Saturday’s games posted a 16.9 rating share, so the Olympics are still blowing all other TV out of the water, just by lessening margins. However, there is no doubt that the execs at NBC have some thinking to do about how they can pitch 2020’s Tokyo games to advertisers and the public alike to avoid a ratings regression a second games in a row.