Why are fewer Americans watching the Olympics this year?

The IOC's efforts to broaden the appeal of the Games may be backfiring among one of its core audiences. A dramatic shift away from TV compounds the issue.

Pavel Golovkin/AP
A man poses for a picture on the Olympic Rings in the Olympic Park at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016.

As of Monday afternoon, the US is leading the Olympic medal count with three gold, six silver, and four bronze medals.

And there have been plenty of historic moments already, starting with host city Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – the first South American city to host the Olympic Games. American teenage swimming sensation Katie Ledecky broke her own world record in the 400 meter freestyle by two seconds. And this year two new sports were added to the lineup: rugby sevens and golf.

But according to recent polling data, fewer Americans are watching the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. When the Olympic opening ceremony aired Friday, 26.5 million Americans were watching – a 35 percent drop in viewership from London’s ceremony four years ago and the lowest rating for the event since 1992. 

That's due in part to dramatic shifts in viewer trends away from TV, even since London. But the decline may also be a side effect of the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) effort in recent years to broaden the appeal of the Games beyond the West and the traditional Olympic sports, awarding the Games to host cities in developing countries and adding high-adrenaline events to appeal to youth.

Some analysts say that has diluted the Olympic brand, especially as a number of sports have other championship events that outshine the Olympics. Dramatic shifts in media away from TV, as well as dissatisfaction with NBC's coverage, have compounded the issue.

“The uniqueness of watching the Olympics is less than it was four years ago,” says Galen Clavio, director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University. 

Last week the IOC agreed to add five sports to the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo: baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, surfing, and rock climbing to "take sport to the youth," as IOC President Thomas Bach put it in a press release

However, adding more events may undermine the IOC’s brand, says Michael Lewis, a marketing professor at Emory University’s business school.

“As a marketer, I would say they are continuing to line the shelves with variants of their core product, but this causes people to lose interest in the core product," he says. "They decided to go for short-term growth rather than long-term excellence and that’s worrisome.”

'The exclusion Games'

Americans' interest in the 2016 Games has been tainted by reports of rampant inequality, environmental pollution, and Brazil's government in crisis.

“I haven’t heard that much about it,” says Nicholas Purkuy, a 20-something from Baltimore. “Well, I did hear some bad things, like they couldn’t house all the athletes.”

“Oh yeah,” chimes in his friend Olivia Brown from Washington. “I heard they built a big [Olympic] site on a mass grave of slaves."

According to a Gallup poll released this week, only 48 percent of Americans planned to watch the Games a “great deal or fair amount” – an almost 10-point drop from 2012. In fact, for the first time ever in Gallup’s polling, Americans planning to watch little or none of the Olympics outnumbered those planning to watch a great deal or fair amount. 

“Brazil has a lot of great things to offer, but a lot of the news leading up to the Olympics focused on the negative things,” says Professor Clavio. “That ends up impacting people’s curiosity of the culture in an unfair way, and that creates a problem that’s hard to fix.” 

The culture of the host city and culture is typically a core component of the events. In 2012, NBC offered videos and anecdotes about London that appealed to Americans’ cultural identification with Europe and England specifically.

“But in this Olympics, the culture has been held more at arm’s length,” adds Clavio.   

That's evident to locals in Rio.

In 2010, Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes announced a project called “Carioca Living” ahead of the 2016 games, complete with provisions for better sewage systems, paving roads, and other construction development. 

But the $12 billion spent on the Games has only “exacerbated inequality” by building walls and further alienating the rich city centers from impoverished favelas, the Monitor’s Jonathan Gilbert reports from Rio de Janerio.

“These are the exclusion Games,” Cosme Vinícius Felippsen, a sweets seller and tour guide in Morro da Providência, Rio’s oldest favela, told the Monitor.

And such visceral suggestions of inequality and corruption may feel especially unappealing to Americans in the summer of 2016, says Professor Lewis of Emory University.

“Rio is happening at a time when there is a great deal of dissatisfaction when it comes to insiders versus outsiders," he says. "And the IOC operates like a classic set of insiders.” 

Dramatic shift in media landscape

But independent from Rio or the IOC, media trends are likely affecting American viewership as well.

“There’s been incredible fragmentation in media, even since 2012,” says Kim Saxton, a professor of marketing at Indiana University's business school. “The same number of bodies are watching, just not in traditional TV spaces.” 

The media landscape has drastically changed in the last four years: Instagram has increased from 40 to 500 million users, Snapchat launched video sharing and now boasts over 8 billion video views per day, and Facebook has surpassed its 1 billion-user mark by over 70 million.  

“My daughter and I were watching gymnastics last night, and she says ‘Facebook’s Trending News just told me the results,’” recalls Professor Saxton. “Why watch if you already know?”

However, the opening ceremony was the only event denied live streaming. And given that NBC is Americans' only source to Olympic coverage, viewers were frustrated: It felt like the rest of the world was participating in an event, but the US was subject to an hour-delay.

To appeal to viewers' "watch-when-I-want" mentality, NBC will offer 4,500 hours of Rio coverage online in addition to the 2,000 hours of coverage played across the broadcast's 11 networks.

And NBC, after agreeing to a $7.75 billion contract to air the Olympic Games through 2032, may have to readdress its editorial approach regardless of social media developments. The broadcasting company has been accused of “packaging” the Olympics through strategies deemed sexist by critics.

"The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans," John Miller, NBC's chief marketing officer, tells Philly.com. "More women watch the Games than men, and for the women, they're less interested in the result.... It's sort of like the ultimate reality show." 

While there is no direct correlation, NBC's "reality TV show" strategy could be having the opposite effect on female viewers. According to the Gallup poll released last week, the decline in interest between 2012 and 2016 is most prominent among women.

And viewers of all genders are taking to Twitter with the hashtag #NBCfail to protest the network's frequent commercials. 

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