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The Olympics Have Fallen Out of Much-Watch Status — Will They Ever Win Viewers Back?

As the Tokyo Olympic Games wrap up Sunday, fans should be, and surely are, grateful to the work that went in to preserve the quadrennial athletic event, even a year later than originally scheduled due to the global health pandemic. But how many of these fans are there — and how many were served by the past two weeks of broadcast coverage on NBC?

With increased streaming options and the Delta variant precluding outside fans in the stands, ratings for marquee NBC coverage plunged compared to the Rio games five years prior, quickly spurring media buyer “make-good” talks with the network, as Variety reported.

What accounts for this? The time-delay for big events — results are available and indeed reported on prior to their making air on NBC — cannot help, though it is not novel for this event. (Frustratingly for NBC, they’ll have to contend with it again in months when the Winter Games are held in Beijing.) And the effect of streaming cannot be understated: There are other ways to view Olympic sports beyond NBC’s linear broadcast, and the media marketplace is growing more crowded with each Games. The consumer has a lot of options, including ignoring the Olympics.

What better Games to tune out than this one? Through no fault of NBC or of host nation Japan, it rapidly came to seem the bad-vibes Olympiad. The empty seats in the sports venues seemed a perpetual drain on energy and vitality, and a reminder of the global cataclysm we all had not quite made it through. Ratings for live events from the NBA to the Oscars had collapsed during COVID season, and I’d wager it owes a great deal to the sense of missing production as much as it does to people being more distracted than ever before. What’s an opening ceremony with athletes waving into darkness? What’s a post-win celebration when the victorious swimmer’s splashes echo against hollow vastness? Where was the applause?

It sounds silly: People should be able to enjoy live events without having an audience surrogate present. And yet the Olympics play on our most primal emotions: Not merely are they deeply rooted in tradition for older viewers, but they are explicitly modeled on ancient displays of valor meant to elevate members of the community. They’re where the world is supposed to come together, and doing that in abridged form feels alienating and uncanny.

I’m not saying the Olympics should have had fans present, or that they shouldn’t have gone on without an audience. But it seems apparent that there was a deflated energy due to particular circumstances that may have accounted for lost viewership, and that spells bad things for cycles in the future. The Olympics — like, for instance, the Academy Awards, which also held a radically altered ceremony this year — need to seem important, meaningful and fun to younger audiences in order to create a new generation of viewership.

This broadcast was held back from achieving that in a couple of ways. First, the energy transmitted through the screen was, relative to past Games, dead; second, the stories that broke through into mainstream consciousness tended to become culture-war dramas that brought out the worst in some observers. The decision of Simone Biles to avoid putting herself in danger by competing when experiencing the phenomenon known as “the twisties” was misinterpreted according to partisan agendas. Perhaps Olympic athletes always become objects rather than subjects, but social media accelerated the process for Biles. She had already been mocked as a malingerer — and, less harmfully, misleadingly celebrated as practicing self-care — before she got to explain the specifics of her situation.

Stipulating that Biles is only responsible for herself and not for a network, perhaps the highest-profile athlete at the Games making the right decision for herself was a tough break for NBC, but bearable (especially given that she made a surprise comeback in the balance beam event). The sense that the Olympics are now just one more data point in our endless cultural back-and-forth, fueled by people with malign intent, may have done more harm. Former President Trump mocking the Olympic women’s soccer team for being “Leftist Maniacs” after the women won the bronze medal doesn’t invalidate what they’ve accomplished, but does speak to a sense that these Games are now explicitly smaller than our politics.

There are many who watched these Games avidly. But a sense of them as the ur-event for Americans to focus on for two weeks seems to have ebbed away, at least a bit. These games were eroded by the toll of global events and eaten into by anger and anomie. NBC deserves credit for putting together a professional-grade broadcast in the midst of extreme pressures. (And the nation of Japan deserves serious sympathy for getting stuck with all of the downsides of hosting an Olympiad, and then some, with not even a glimmer of whatever is said to be the upside.)

But something seems to be slipping away, something that won’t easily be won back. COVID and restrictions related to the disease only emphasize it: The Olympics have fallen out of must-watch status for many who’d long have put it on by default. Winning them back will be a job that goes beyond improving a fine broadcast or even winding down the COVID pandemic; it would mean returning to a world where unity, where watching the same thing at the same time in order to find a hero, was a goal that even made sense.

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