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Peacock, Paywalls, and A Labyrinth of Programming at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games

6 MINUTE READ | August 12, 2021

Peacock, Paywalls, and A Labyrinth of Programming at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games

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Abby Long

Abby is PMG’s senior managing editor, where she leads the company’s editorial program and manages the PMG Blog and Insights Hub. As a writer, editor, and marketing communications strategist with nearly a decade of experience, Abby's work in showcasing PMG’s unique expertise through POVs, research reports, and thought leadership regularly informs business strategy and media investments for some of the most iconic brands in the world. Named among the AAF Dallas 32 Under 32, her expertise in advertising, media strategy, and consumer trends has been featured in Ad Age, Business Insider, and Digiday.

After more than two weeks of competition, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics came to an official end on Sunday, with the Olympic flame extinguished in the cauldron at the Closing Ceremony. Tokyo ceremoniously passed the torch to Paris for the next summer Olympiad in 2024. In “one of the strangest Olympics of the modern era,” the Games were marked by crowdless stadiums, heartfelt triumphs, and record-breaking performances. From a media perspective, this year’s Olympics delivered new insights and surprising viewership trends that are worth diving into. 

  • Analysts are calling Tokyo the “transition Olympics” as viewership via linear TV diminished, yet streaming programming didn’t quite deliver against viewer expectations. 

  • In the end, ratings fell with the Tokyo Olympics averaging 15.5 million viewers, the lowest audience for the Summer Games, and a significant 42 percent decline from the Rio Olympics in 2016, according to total audience delivery analytics measured by Adobe Analytics and Nielsen.

In a pre-pandemic world, the plan was for NBCUniversal to unveil the all-new streaming service Peacock just in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, providing viewers with more than enough on-demand programming to fill their Olympic media appetites as the Games acted as an accelerator for driving sign-ups and subscription growth. Instead, the Olympics were delayed for 365 days by the pandemic, leaving Peacock to launch in July 2020 with a library of content including The Office, Parks and Recreation, and other classic shows to attract subscribers. Heading into the Tokyo Olympics, NBCUniversal made up for lost time, touting Peacock as the primary way to watch all the Olympic action. During the first few days of the Olympics, mobile downloads of Peacock surged 60 percent, according to app analytics company App Annie. 

From the outset, Peacock’s Olympic coverage was met with frustration as the Opening Ceremony wasn’t streamed live on the app, though it streamed live on the NBC Olympic website. The user experience of the Peacock app was confusing, offering no clear path for viewers to tune into events live or watch in high resolution. Instead, Peacock utilized a new pop-up channel to house Olympic programming while also offering clips and footage of the action, along with a complicated carousel of paywalled content elsewhere on the app. 

Like men’s basketball, many sports were paywalled, likely in an attempt to boost sign-ups for Peacock’s paid plans. Additionally, the search experience was challenging with the most current events at the bottom of the search results, and events only listed their run times, with no indication of the date or time that the live event took place. As mentioned in Adweek, the Peacock Olympics programming strategy seemed to be built similar to linear TV viewing with ‘Tokyo Now’ acting as the main live network on Peacock and replays only available to paying customers

Due to the scope of the Tokyo Olympics, live programming was spread out across a variety of channels, including USA Network, CNBC, NBCSN, Golf Channel, Telemundo, and the Olympic Channel. Accessing the Olympics became so confusing that NBCUniversal published guide books and brought in Steve Kornacki, best known for his data chops on live coverage through the 2020 Presidential election, to help viewers navigate Olympics programming across NBCUniversal’s portfolio of apps and channels. 

“If you’re a badminton fan, you’re going to be looking for NBCSN,” Kornacki told viewers one night. “If you’re an archery fan, USA Network.” 

According to a press release, NBC’s Tokyo Olympics competition coverage delivered 11 of primetime TV’s 25 most-watched shows in 2021, with Tokyo Olympics Day 2 on July 25, 2021, earning the highest viewership of the event at 19.5 million viewers

“There is nothing more powerful in media than the 17 straight days of Olympics dominance,” NBC Sports Chairman Pete Bevacqua said in a statement. “Despite being thrown a series of curveballs over the last 18 months, the power of the Olympics delivered to audiences across the various platforms of NBCU has proven itself unequaled.”

However, Morning Consult reported that Americans were largely disinterested and disengaged in the Tokyo Olympics, with 60 percent of U.S. adults saying they “hadn’t watched much or any” of the events through the first week of the Games. As noted by many analysts, the 13-hour time-zone difference between Tokyo and the East Coast likely contributed to a drop in viewership as well, with many Americans waking up to phone alerts informing them of medal wins that wouldn’t be broadcasted until later that evening in prime-time

In the end, ratings fell with the Tokyo Olympics averaging 15.5 million viewers, the lowest audience for the Summer Games, and a significant 42 percent decline from the Rio Olympics in 2016, according to total audience delivery analytics measured by Nielsen and Adobe Analytics. The 15.5 million total included the NBC broadcast network and digital platforms like the Peacock streaming service. NBC announced that viewers streamed nearly six billion minutes of Tokyo Olympics programming across NBC’s digital and social media platforms. NBCUniversal expects the Tokyo Games to be profitable due to the rise in viewership on Peacock that offset declines in linear TV. 

NBC TV executives blamed the time delay and a lack of energy from crowdless stadiums – among other factors – for the decline, though the prevailing transformation in viewing habits from traditional linear TV to streaming is a more likely explanation. Analysts are referring to the Tokyo Olympics as a “transition” Olympics as the “old ways in which Americans consumed the Games are fading fast, and new ways are still taking hold.” 

On a conference call following Comcast’s second-quarter earnings last week, NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell spoke to the “drumbeat of negativity,” citing the year-long delay and no spectators that likely contributed to the decline in traditional linear TV ratings. Despite the frustrating user experience, Peacock remained a bright spot as it remains the company’s fastest-growing unit and will remain a “key part of the company’s coverage in future games, including the Winter Olympics in Beijing next year.” 

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“What we will learn in this Olympics, we will take to Beijing.” — Jeff Shell, CEO of NBCUniversal

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