Why are ratings down for the Summer Olympics?


Lots of people are weighing in on the ratings declines for the first few days of NBC’s coverage of the Summer Olympics and many reasons have been thrown into the digital ether, including:

  • tape delays
  • NBC’s commentators are awful
  • broader availability on cable (AKA the “not down when you add it all up!” hypothesis)
  • more commercials.
  • the athletes involved
  • Zika is gross
  • NBC is cannibalizing its TV #s with its digital #s

The above list is illustrative not comprehensive. The “not down when you add it all up” hypothesis and its cousin NBC is cannibalizing its TV #s with its digital numbers can at least be quantified. My guess is even in combination, once quantified they will be dismissed as candidates. The more commercials thing can be quantified. It turns out that’s not the case, though with the opening ceremonies more commercials were front-loaded, making it seem like there were more commercials. So maybe, but that doesn’t apply to the Saturday and Sunday primetime coverage which was down around 30% and 15% respectively.

The other reasons can’t be quantified easily or, sadly, at all.

NBC has a case to make that things like commentators, tape delays and location don’t matter or at least they haven’t mattered in the past. But many people think that with social media these things matter a lot more now than in 2012. But wasn’t social media already a big deal by 2012? People complaining about tape delays? Google “London opening ceremony NBC tape delay”

My theory, or rather hypothesis is: more and escalating fragmentation. This can’t be fully quantified either, but some energetic and enterprising journalist should be able to obtain some data. I’m not a journalist and even though I own my own home, for the most part I have the sensibilities and work ethic of an unemployed blogger living in his mom’s basement.

What does more and escalating fragmentation mean? Just that people have more choices to quell boredom/entertain themselves and are using them more than ever before. Fragmentation includes all of those options from podcasts, audio books and digital books to streaming services, Instagram, SnapChat and Pokemon Go.

I floated the “More Fragmentation Hypothesis” to a few people and two out of three pushed back with some version of “it must be wrong because less than 2 months ago the NBA finals’ viewership was up year over year!”

That’s true, but I think that’s the outlier, the exception that proves the rule. The NBA Finals needed Jupiter to align with Mars: an historic 73 win team with a superstar versus the greatest player of his generation. And it still needed an historic comeback with the most-watched NBA game since 1998 to eke out a viewership edge versus 2015.

Are you better off getting ratings analysis from section editors at Variety than someone with the sensibilities of an unemployed blogger living in his mother’s basement? Of course! Still, Netflix would be a good litmus test for the “More Fragmentation Hypothesis.” While it’s against Netflix’s religion to release viewership totals for specific shows, it has shown some willingness to release aggregate viewership over specified time periods. I’d love to see the those primetime numbers over the period of the 2012 summer games versus the 2016 games.

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