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Ratings for the Beijing Winter Olympics have been historically low so far, NBC says

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

The Winter Olympics can be challenging for athletes. But also proving a challenge during these games in Beijing - drawing a broadcast audience. NBC says ratings so far are at historic lows, even factoring in viewers on streaming platforms and NBC's cable channels - this, as the Games face controversy for everything from China's human rights record to changes inspired by the pandemic that have led many American commentators to work remotely.

NPR TV critic Eric Deggans is here. Hey, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.

FLORIDO: So just how low are these ratings?

DEGGANS: Well, according to data from NBC, they're pretty low. The audience in prime time on Friday, when their broadcast coverage focused on the opening ceremony, was about 12.8 million people, and that included folks watching on the streaming service Peacock, the USA Network cable channel and other streaming platforms. And for that whole day on Friday, they averaged about 16 million viewers, which was still a 43% drop from the opening day of the previous Winter Olympics back in 2018.

FLORIDO: Wow.

DEGGANS: So these numbers seem a lot closer to their prime time ratings for the pandemic-delayed Summer Olympics that was held last year, which broke records as the lowest-rated audience for the Summer Games since NBC started covering it in 1988.

FLORIDO: Are there any silver linings for NBC here?

DEGGANS: Well, you got to wonder if these figures kind of represent a new normal for Olympics viewership on traditional television, where audiences will be smaller than we've seen, you know, four or eight years ago. The overall TV audience on cable and broadcast has shrunk a lot in recent years, so these Olympics ratings are still higher rated than anything else that's airing against them in prime-time television.

And NBC also says its streaming numbers are really expanding. They've topped 1 billion minutes, which is the fastest growth for a streaming audience ever at the Winter Games.

FLORIDO: Well, as we mentioned, there's a lot of controversy around the host country, China. The U.S. has implemented a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Games over China's treatment of its Uyghur Muslims. Might that be a factor, too?

DEGGANS: Well, I think we're seeing a case where the Olympics are suffering from a lot of different problems at once. I'm sure there are some people who are not watching the Games over their feelings about China. This is also an Olympics that was - that's held less than a year after the Summer Games, which didn't give a lot of time to build up the hype. And even though some American competitors are doing well now, it took a little while for the U.S. to get a gold medal, and the top athletes here are not yet the household names of athletes from the Summer Games like Simone Biles.

And I have to say, I don't think viewership is suffering because several commentators are not in China. I think NBC Sports has done a really good job of presenting the actual coverage. So for somebody like me, a casual sports fan, I haven't really noticed much of a difference.

FLORIDO: Well, I've got to ask, Eric - you're NPR's TV critic, so what's your verdict on the coverage of the Olympics overall so far?

DEGGANS: Well, one thing I like is that they seem to listen to critics of how Peacock handled streaming the Summer Games last year. This time, they've created an interface for the Winter Games that's much more informative. It's easy to use.

As always, I'm a little critical of how the anchors go overboard with their championing of U.S. athletes. One thing that was cool to see is they had Saturday Night Live alum Leslie Jones, who is known for live tweeting and putting stuff on social media while she watches the Olympics. She was thinking about stopping, but she worked out some difficulties with NBC. They said she can go ahead and put her commentary on social media, so at least we will have Leslie.

FLORIDO: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Thanks, Eric.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.