Tokyo Hit an All-Time Low in Olympic Viewership. Survey Data Suggests Beijing Could Be Worse

40% of those who said they don’t plan to watch cited opposition to the Games being held in China as a factor
January 31, 2022 at 2:43 pm UTC

Last year’s Tokyo Summer Games delivered the smallest average primetime audience for an Olympics since at least 1988, when NBC took over U.S. broadcast rights for the Summer Games. But new Morning Consult survey data suggests the Beijing Winter Olympics, which start this week, will face an even tougher time capturing the American public’s attention.

Viewership Intent for Beijing Winter Olympics Trails All-Time Low Tokyo Games

The share of U.S. adults who said they plan to watch all or some of the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics is smaller than the share who said the same ahead of last summer’s Tokyo Olympics
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Polls were conducted July 9-13, 2021, and Jan. 25-27, 2022, among representative samples of 4,398 U.S. adults and 2,210 U.S. adults, with unweighted margins of error of +/-1 percentage point and +/-2 points, respectively.

What the numbers say: 

  • In a poll conducted last week, 45 percent of U.S. adults said they planned to watch “a lot” or “some” of the Beijing Games via TV or streaming, less than the 51 percent who said as much in a July 2021 survey ahead of last summer’s Tokyo Games. Meanwhile, 27 percent said they don’t plan to watch any of next month’s Games at all, up from 19 percent ahead of the Tokyo Games.
  • While 51 percent of respondents said that prior to the Tokyo Games they planned to watch at least some of the action, just 39 percent of respondents in a post-Olympics survey said they actually watched “a lot” or “some” of the Games. Expect a similar drop-off from viewership expectations to reality for the Beijing Games.
  • While the Winter Olympics are considered to be a tougher sell to the American public than the Summer Games in general, average primetime viewership for the Winter Games (26.88 million) has been slightly higher than that of the Summer Games (25.75 million) since 1988. That includes the historically underperforming Tokyo Games (15.6 million), which drew nearly 6 million fewer viewers a night than the next least-watched Summer Olympics. Since 2000, however, four of the top five most-viewed Games have occurred during the summer, with the top-ranked 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games the only outlier.
  • Asked to choose between the Summer and Winter Olympics, 24 percent of U.S. adults said they prefer the Summer Olympics, while 16 percent said they prefer the Winter Games. The remaining respondents either said they enjoy the two equally (32 percent) or didn’t have an opinion on the matter (28 percent).

Lack of Interest in Events, Athletes Rank as Top Reasons Americans Don’t Plan to Watch Beijing Olympics

U.S. adults who said they don’t plan to watch any of the Beijing Winter Olympics were asked whether each of the following were reasons for their decision:
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Poll conducted Jan. 25-27, 2022, among a representative sample of 573 U.S. adults who don’t plan to watch the Olympics, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-4 percentage points.
  • Data collected during the Tokyo Games suggested that Democrats were significantly more likely to watch the Olympics than independents or Republicans. New data suggests the same partisan split will carry over to Beijing. Fifty-seven percent of Democrats said they plan to watch at least some of the Beijing Games, compared with 40 percent of Republicans and 35 percent of independents.
  • Among those who said they don’t plan to watch any of the Beijing Games, the most common reasons cited were a lack of interest in the events (65 percent) and athletes (57 percent). 
  • Forty percent of those who don’t intend to watch pointed to China hosting the Games as a reason for tuning out, including 31 percent who cited it as a “major” reason. Among Republicans who said they don’t expect to watch, 56 percent pointed to China as a reason, versus 28 percent among Democrats who don’t plan to watch.
  • Only 16 percent of those who don’t plan to watch cited the coronavirus as a reason they don’t expect to watch the Games, suggesting both that the virus isn’t playing as significant of a role in Americans’ lives as it was earlier in the pandemic and also that some might not be aware of how the virus has impacted preparation for the event in China.

The impact

NBC appears to know it has its work cut out for it with the Beijing Games, as the network has reportedly been preparing advertisers for a steep ratings decline relative to the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang. Dan Lovinger, executive vice president of sales and partnerships for NBC Sports Group, said during a Jan. 20 video presentation that there was still “some work to be done between now and the end of the Games” on the ad sales front, though he added that sales were progressing at a pace similar to 2018 and that the average amount spent among returning advertisers was up from that cycle.

One tailwind for the Beijing Games is the fact that NBC will have the Super Bowl as a lead-in for its Olympic coverage on Feb. 13. The program that airs after the Super Bowl always draws a significantly larger audience than it would in any other time slot, and a network spokesperson said that night’s Olympic coverage will count toward the final primetime figure for Beijing. If enough Super Bowl viewers stick around, it could have a material impact on the overall average for Beijing.

Given the controversy surrounding this year’s Games being held in China despite the country’s human rights record, it’s easy to see why Olympic sponsors have been relatively quiet in the lead-up to Friday’s opening ceremony. While NBC is still treating the Olympics as a tentpole event, its marketing has been understated and is downplaying the location of the Games. Expect enthusiasm among U.S. sponsors and media to be much greater for Paris 2024, Milano Cortina 2026 and, of course, Los Angeles 2028.

The Jan. 25-27, 2022 poll was conducted among a representative sample of 2,210 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

A headshot photograph of Alex Silverman
Alex Silverman
Senior Reporter

Alex Silverman previously worked at Morning Consult as a reporter covering the business of sports.

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