The crisis-ridden, pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics finally gets underway this week, but without fans in the stands, is the global sports showcase still a must-see TV?
Concerned NBC executives are definitely breaking out in rivers of flop sweat.
Cases of COVID-19 are on the rise in Tokyo, and the Games, which were postponed last year due to fears of the coronavirus, will be held mostly empty spaces to reduce health risks. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga recently announced that the state of emergency will remain in place through the Olympics.
It’s a huge disappointment for NBCUniversal, which spends billions for exclusive broadcast rights and counts on images of enthusiastic, flag-waving, fist-pumping spectators to fuel the excitement among viewers watching from home. No amount of cardboard cutouts, or piped-in crowd noise can replace that kind of juice.
Adding to the disappointment is the shocking reality that many Japanese citizens believe the Olympics should be cancelled. Talk about Buzzkill. (For Americans, a cbs news poll It was revealed in late June that most Americans want the game to continue.)
Still, NBC is absolutely leading the way. The company plans to capture all activities – from aquatics to wrestling – with over 7,000 hours of coverage across two broadcast networks (NBC and Telemundo), six cable channels (USA, CNBC, NBCSN, Olympics). Channel, Golf Channel and Universo) and several digital platforms, including the age-old streaming service, Peacock.
Things start to get louder with the opening ceremony on Friday, and due to the huge time difference between Japan and the US, NBC will broadcast the festivities live in the morning for the first time.
For smoky-eyed West Coast diehards, that means a 4 a.m. wakeup call. If that’s too hard, you can stick with the network’s traditional prime-time broadcasts on Friday nights. It will feature exclusive coverage of Team USA, along with pre-recorded performances, pageantry and the Parade of Nations.
And then, from Friday through August 8, it will be a relentless onslaught of Olympic programming. Plan to spend lots of time with NBC’s in-studio Olympic host Mike Tirico.
But we will undoubtedly miss the live audience and the feel-good vibes they provide.
Addressing the situation with The Hollywood Reporter, an NBC spokesperson tried to put a positive spin on things, saying, “Although unfortunate, it will not diminish the incredible stories and achievements of athletes from Team USA and around the world.” ”
He may be right. The Olympic Games — even with their all-important flaws — generally offer the most compelling brand of reality TV. Few programs aired on television have the power to make us laugh, tear and gasp during the night.
But it is the spectators who add to the spectacle.
Anyone who watched the recently completed NBA Finals on ABC, with scenes of frenzied crowds once again packed in and out – arenas can attest to that. After a year of playing games in empty, sterile “bubbles,” the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns remind us that games make for a boisterous, joyous, communal experience.
And TV ratings bear it. Nielsen numbers for nearly all major sports leagues declined significantly during the pandemic, even as other home entertainment options such as streaming and gaming jumped in use among locked-down Americans. Experts attribute the decline in game viewing, at least in part, to a lack of fans in the stands.
This is going to worry NBC and the various Olympic sponsors, who may not get the kind of flashy oomph they’ve come to expect from the Olympics. But there is no shortage of supporters. NBC reportedly 120 advertisers lined up for Tokyo event — 20 more than the 2016 Rio Games — and raised $1.2 billion in advertising revenue.
And let’s not forget the athletes who wouldn’t have fans — or even family members — cheering them on during the biggest moments of their lives. Will their performance suffer?
As far as NBC is concerned, the network has one key factor going for it: Team USA.
After leading all nations at the Rio Games with a total of 121 medals, American athletes are expected to be the dominant players in Tokyo again. Did someone say “Homerism”? Look for Tirico and company to pay special attention to Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, Kevin Durant, and other star-spangled contestants in hopes of keeping viewers from fleeing Netflix.
But will it pay off in bigger ratings? We’ll know in a few days if NBC gold can strike Tokyo — or fails to make the medal podium.
Contact Chuck Barney at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.com/chuckbarney and Facebook.com/bayareanewsgroup.chuckbarney.