Comcast/NBCU’s Olympics viewership dropped 15% as ‘nightmare’ comes true

NBC Sports studio Rio Olympics 2016

Viewership of Comcast/NBCUniversal’s coverage of the Rio Olympic Games dropped 15 percent over 2012 London Olympics, drawing concern not only about the conglomerate’s multi-billion-dollar investment in the Games, but also the fate of linear television.

In Nielsen’s Total Audience Delivery metric, which measures linear viewership across cable and broadcast channels, as well as streaming platforms, NBCU networks averaged 26 million viewers across 17 days of Rio Olympics coverage. 

That was down 15 percent from the 31.1 million viewers averaged during the London Games four years earlier. 

NBCU ended up having to give additional ad inventory away to sponsors during its Closing Ceremonies coverage to make up for a fairly wide ratings shortfall.

During Comcast’s second-quarter earnings call last month, NBCU CEO Steve Burke said Rio Olympics ad sales were exceeding the 2012 London Olympic Games in profitability. The London Games, he said, yielded a tidy profit of $120 million. 

However, speaking in mid-June during Guggenheim Securities' annual TMT Symposium, Burke conceded that changing viewing habits — the prospect of younger viewers being dissonant to the Olympics — concerned him. 

"My worry is that that feeling is -- you wake up in the morning and you have either hooked America, and you can tell right after the opening ceremony, in the first two or three nights," Burke said. ”Either America has fallen in love all over again or they haven't, and my nightmare is we wake up someday and the ratings are down 20 percent." 

Perhaps even more concerning was the long-term implications for linear viewing.

The stark viewership declines came even though streaming was way up. Viewers streamed around 2.71 billion minutes of Rio coverage, nearly double the combined number for the two previous Olympics.

“The growth of streaming, the rapidity of its growth, was a little bit surprising,” NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus told Variety. “We knew it would grow. We planned on it growing. Between that and the number of people watching on connected TV devices, we have a lot to learn about consumer behavior.”

For more:
- read this Variety story
- read this Ad Age story

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