Last Friday’s opening ceremony viewership was down 35% from 2016 — and it hasn’t gotten any better
After a year’s delay due to the pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics got off to a rocky start on NBC last Friday with an opening ceremony that was down 35% in total viewers compared to the 2016 kickoff to the Rio de Janeiro Summer Games, an all-time low in viewership.
One week later, we have six nights of Nielsen data that give a better idea of overall interest in NBC’s Tokyo Olympics coverage. We also know which night took the gold and which didn’t even medal — and how they stack up to Rio’s comparable evenings.
You've reached your article limit.
Unlock premium content with a subscription.Click Here Already a subscriber? Login
Through Thursday, the Tokyo Olympics are averaging a Total Audience Delivery (TAD) of 17.5 million primetime viewers. That number counts linear viewing on NBC and cable networks USA Network, NBCSN, CNBC, plus streaming on Peacock, the NBC Sports app and NBCOlympics.com.
But viewership is down 42% overall from the Rio Olympics in 2016, which averaged a TAD of 30.5 million primetime viewers through the first Thursday of competition. That tally, of course, does not include numbers from streaming service Peacock, which launched last spring.
So, yeah, that’s way down, but TV ratings overall have been in a steady decline in recent years, making comparing 2016 viewership to 2021 viewership a tricky situation. That’s why we should note that the first six nights of competition (Saturday-Thursday) for NBC’s Tokyo Olympics coverage have accounted for six of the 18 most-watched primetime shows in 2021. Again, down from Rio, but still impressive in today’s viewership-diminished TV landscape.
The most-watched night during Week 1 of the 2021 Olympics was Sunday night, with a TAD of 20 million viewers.
That night, four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles led the U.S. women’s gymnastics team in qualifying, marking the last time Biles competed during the Olympic competition before withdrawing from Tuesday’s all-around event and later from the individual events. Also on Sunday, swimmer Caeleb Dressel took gold in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay and Katie Ledecky grabbed silver in the women’s 400m freestyle.
That’s a whopping 45% drop from the most-watched night from the first six days of the Rio games — a Tuesday that drew 36.1 million viewers for an evening in which star gymnast Biles and Team USA took gold in the women’s team finale and the U.S. won gold in these swimming events: women’s 200m freestyle, men’s 200m butterfly and men’s 4 x 200m freestyle relay.
On the flip side, the least-watched night for the first week of the Tokyo Olympics was Wednesday, with 15 million viewers. That night, Robert Finke scored gold in the men’s 800m freestyle, Dressel got the gold for the men’s 100m freestyle, and Ledecky led Team USA to a silver in the women’s 4x200m freestyle relay, while the U.S. did not medal in the men’s individual all-around final in gymnastics.
Interestingly, that corresponding Wednesday during NBC’s Rio coverage in 2016 had the smallest audience for Week 1 of those games, drawing 28.6 million viewers — nearly twice as many as the Tokyo Games’ low night. During that primetime window, Ledecky and Team USA took a gold for the women’s 4x200m freestyle relay, Michael Phelps scored a gold in the men’s 200m individual medley and Ryan Murphy won gold in the men’s 200m backstroke.
While not the most-watched night of Week 1 of Tokyo’s games, we should note here that Thursday’s primetime coverage, which saw Suni Lee winning gold in the women’s gymnastics all-around, multiple U.S. medal-winning performances in the pool and the beginning of the track & field competition, is the highest-rated night so far with a 10.8 household rating, per Nielsen. It had a 19.5 million TAD, making it the second most-watched night of the week.
Readers can see a breakdown of viewers for the first six nights of primetime Tokyo Olympics coverage below, along with the events that aired on those nights and how the TADs stack up to Rio’s comparable Nielsen returns. For the sake of simplicity, we’ve only noted the events that aired on NBC during primetime each night, though the TAD figures, as previously stated, also include viewership for other events coverage on cable and streaming for that window.
Night 1: Saturday, 8 p.m. – 11:30 p.m.
Tokyo TAD: 15.9 million
Rio TAD: 23.5 million
Tokyo Events: Swimming Finals (LIVE) Men’s 400m Individual Medley, Men’s 400m Freestyle, Women’s 400m Individual Medley, Women’s 4x100m Freestyle Relay, Women’s Beach Volleyball – Ross/Klineman (U.S.) vs. Xue/Wang (China) (LIVE), Gymnastics – Men’s Team Competition, Skateboarding – Men’s Street Qualifying
Night 2: Sunday, 7 p.m. – 11:30 p.m.
Tokyo TAD: 20 million
Rio TAD: 31.8 million
Tokyo Events: Swimming – Finals (LIVE) Women’s 100m Butterfly, Men’s 100m Breaststroke, Women’s 400m Freestyle, Men’s 4×100 Freestyle Relay, Gymnastics – Women’s Team Competition, Triathlon – Men’s Final (LIVE), Skateboarding – Women’s Street Qualifying
Night 3: Monday, 8 p.m. – 11:30 p.m.
Tokyo TAD: 16.8 million
Rio TAD: 31.5 million
Tokyo Events: Swimming – Finals (LIVE) Men’s 200m Freestyle, Women’s 100m Backstroke, Men’s 100m Backstroke, Women’s 100m Breaststroke, Gymnastics – Men’s Team Final, Diving – Men’s Synchronized Platform Final, Triathlon – Women’s Final
Night 4: Tuesday, 8 p.m. – 12 a.m.
Tokyo TAD: 16.2 million
Rio TAD: 36.1 million
Events: Swimming – Finals (LIVE) Women’s 200m Freestyle, Men’s 200m Butterfly, Women’s 200m Individual Medley, Women’s 1500m Freestyle, Men’s 4x200m Freestyle Relay, Gymnastics – Women’s Team Final
Night 5: Wednesday, 8 p.m. – 12 a.m.
Tokyo TAD: 15 million
Rio TAD: 28.6 million
Events: Swimming – Finals (LIVE) Men’s 800m Freestyle, Men’s 200m Breaststroke, Women’s 200m Butterfly, Men’s 100m Freestyle, Women’s 4x200m Freestyle Relay, Gymnastics – Men’s Individual All-Around, Diving – Men’s Synchronized Springboard Final
Night 6: Thursday, 8 p.m. – 11:30 p.m.
Tokyo TAD: 19.5 million
Rio TAD: 33 million
Events: Swimming – Finals (LIVE) Women’s 200m Breaststroke, Men’s 200m Backstroke, Women’s 100m Freestyle, Men’s 200m Individual Medley, Gymnastics – Women’s All-Around, Track & Field – Qualifying Rounds (LIVE), Women’s 800m, Men’s 400m Hurdles, Women’s 100m, Swimming – Semifinals
TV Reporter • firstname.lastname@example.org • Twitter: @jmaasaronson