The troubled, pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics finally get under way this week, but without fans in the stands, will the global sports showcase still make for must-see TV?
Anxious NBC executives are surely breaking out in rivers of flop sweat.
COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Tokyo, and the games, postponed last year because of coronavirus fears, will be held in mostly empty venues to minimize health risks. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga recently announced that a state of emergency will remain in place through the Olympics.
That’s a huge letdown for NBCUniversal, which spends billions for exclusive broadcast rights and counts on images of exuberant, flag-waving, fist-pumping spectators to amp up 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 jarring reality that many Japanese citizens believe the Olympics should just be canceled. Talk about a buzzkill. (As for Americans, a CBS News poll in late June revealed that a majority of Americans want the Games to go on.)
Still, NBC is going all in. The company plans to capture all the action — from aquatics to wrestling — with more than 7,000 hours of coverage across two broadcast networks (NBC and Telemundo), six cable channels (USA, CNBC, NBCSN, Olympic Channel, Golf Channel and Universo) and multiple digital platforms, including the year-old streaming service, Peacock.
Things get rolling in earnest with the opening ceremony on Friday, and because of the vast time difference between Japan and the U.S., NBC will broadcast the festivities live in the morning for the first time ever.
For bleary-eyed American diehards, that means a 7 a.m. ET wake-up call. If that’s too daunting, you can stick with the network’s traditional prime-time broadcast on Friday night. It will feature special coverage of Team USA, along with the prerecorded performances, pageantry and Parade of Nations.
And then, from Friday through Aug. 8, it will be a relentless onslaught of Olympics programming. Plan on spending lots of face time with Mike Tirico, NBC’s in-studio Olympics host.
But what we’ll undoubtedly miss are live audiences and the feel-good vibes they provide.
In addressing the situation with The Hollywood Reporter, an NBC spokesperson tried to put a positive spin on things, saying, “Although unfortunate, this won’t diminish the incredible stories and achievements of the athletes from Team USA and around the world.”
He could be right. The Olympic games — even with all their considerable flaws — generally deliver a most compelling brand of reality TV. Few televised events have the power to move us to cheers, tears and gasps on a nightly basis.
But it’s the spectators who enhance the spectacle.
Anyone who witnessed the just-completed NBA Finals on ABC, with scenes of frenzied crowds once again packed inside — and outside — the arenas can attest to that. A year after playing games in empty, sterile “bubbles,” the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns reminded us that sports are meant to be a boisterous, joyous, communal experience.
And TV ratings bear that out. The Nielsen numbers for virtually all major sports leagues slumped significantly during the pandemic, even as other at-home entertainment options such as streaming and gaming jumped in usage among locked-down Americans. Experts attribute the decline in sports viewing, at least in part, to the lack of fans in the stands.
That has to worry NBC and the various Olympics sponsors who might not get the kind of lucrative oomph from the Olympics they expect. But there has been no shortage of backers. NBC has reportedly lined up 120 advertisers for the Tokyo event — 20 more than the 2016 Rio Games — and pulled in $1.2 billion in ad revenue.
And let’s not forget the athletes who won’t have fans — or even family members — cheering them on during the biggest moments in their lives. Will their performances suffer?
As for NBC, the network does have an important factor going for it: Team USA.
After leading all nations with 121 total medals at the Rio Games, American athletes are again expected to be major players in Tokyo. Did someone say “homerism”? Look for Tirico and company to devote special, fawning attention to Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, Kevin Durant and other star-spangled competitors in hopes of keeping viewers from fleeing to Netflix.
But will it pay off in big ratings? We’ll know in a few days if NBC can strike gold Tokyo — or fail to make the medals podium.