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Olympics viewership is down, even as NBC pays more for the rights to air it

If recent trends continue, it’ll only get worse.

Olympic athletes gather behind an Olympic flag at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics Amin Mohammad Jamali / Getty
Rani Molla is a senior correspondent at Vox and has been focusing her reporting on the future of work. She has covered business and technology for more than a decade — often in charts — including at Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.

Like everything else on TV, Olympics viewership has stagnated, or even declined. But that hasn’t made the Olympics any cheaper for networks to air.

NBC* paid $963 million for the rights to air the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, a 24 percent jump over the $775 million it paid for the last Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Still, NBC has already made much of that back, selling more than $900 million in ad sales for the recent Winter games, a record according to the network.

If previous years’ trends continue, however, these games might see fewer viewers. For the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, NBC paid $1.2 billion, or 4 percent more than the previous summer games in London, but average U.S. prime-time competition viewership declined more than 9 percent. The Rio games were the first that NBC also streamed online simultaneously, and those viewers are included in the overall viewership count.

NBC owns the Olympics through 2032 as part of a $7.65 billion agreement that gives the network rights to air six games, or an average of $1.27 billion each. That’s a 16 percent rise over the previous $4.38 billion deal that gave NBC four games, or $1.09 billion per Olympics.

Viewership declines aren’t really surprising, as similar trends have unfolded across the TV landscape and viewers opt for on-demand and online entertainment alternatives. Even football and the Super Bowl — considered the last holdouts where advertisers could guarantee huge live audiences would be watching — are not immune.

Of course, Olympic viewership can vary year to year, depending on the location of the games and the caliber of its athletes, but overall, viewership trends seem bleak. Toggle back and forth on the charts below to see how viewership and rights fees have changed in almost two decades.


Rights fees:

For the many people still watching the Olympics, you can find out how to livestream it here.

* NBCUniversal is a minority investor in Vox Media, which owns this site. Vox Media has also collaborated with NBCUniversal on The Podium, a podcast series about the Olympics.

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