NBC’s broadcast of the Tokyo Olympic Games opening ceremony drew 16.7 million viewers, the smallest U.S. television audience for the event in the past 33 years, according to preliminary data from Comcast-owned NBCUniversal on Saturday.
Across all platforms, including NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app, 17 million people watched the ceremony, the company said in an email.
The streaming audience on those platforms grew 76% from the 2018 PyeongChang opening ceremony and 72% from the 2016 Rio opener, reflecting a change in viewing habits.
Friday’s audience reflects a steep drop, despite difficult comparisons with previous opening ceremonies when viewers had fewer streaming options.
The Tokyo opener TV audience declined 37% from 2016, when 26.5 million people watched the Rio de Janeiro Games opener, and 59% from 2012, when 40.7 million people watched the London ceremony.
The previous 33-year low for a summer Games opening ceremony was for the 1992 Barcelona Games, when 21.6 million people tuned in, according to Nielsen data. The 1988 Seoul Games opener attracted 22.7 million viewers.
The Rio, London, Barcelona and Seoul numbers reflect final ratings data not yet available for the Tokyo Games opener.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Friday’s scaled-down opening event took place with fewer than 1,000 attendees at the Olympic Stadium under strict social distancing rules.
Major absences included former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had wooed the games to Tokyo, and top sponsors, as the event faced strong opposition in COVID-fatigued Japan.
With Tokyo 13 hours ahead of the U.S. east coast, NBC for the first time broadcast the ceremony live in the morning, at 6:55 a.m. EST Friday. NBC’s taped, primetime broadcast began at 7:30 p.m. EST.
In its primetime coverage, NBC acknowledged the pandemic and its toll while presenting the Olympics as a positive event.
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” said host Savannah Guthrie, co-anchor of NBC News’ “Today” morning show. “There’s nothing like an opening ceremony to really get you excited for the Olympic Games.”
NBCUniversal has aggressively pushed its digital platforms this year, and views the Olympics as a vital driver of subscribers for its Peacock streaming service.
The company plans to air an “unprecedented” 7,000 hours of Olympics coverage across its multiple television networks and Peacock. These include some of the most anticipated events, such as gymnastics and U.S. Men’s basketball, on the streaming platform. It will also stream over 5,500 hours of the Olympics on NBCOlympics.com and its sports app.
Rising COVID-19 cases in Tokyo have cast a shadow over the Olympic Games. Only a third of Japanese citizens have had even one vaccine dose, prompting worries the games could become a super-spreader event.