An expected Olympic bounce has instead turned into an Olympic hangover for NBC Sports Network, which has seen viewership ratings plunge to historic lows just weeks after setting record highs in London.
Just two weeks after the Games, the week of Aug. 20-26, NBC Sports Network hit an all-time ratings low, dating to 2003 when the channel then known as Outdoor Life Network first became Nielsen rated. During that week in August, it averaged 71,000 prime-time viewers, which included a live Friday night MLS game (Philadelphia vs. Real Salt Lake) that drew just 40,000 viewers.
NBC Sports Network’s viewership numbers stand in direct contrast to the network’s performance during the Summer Olympics, when the channel formerly known as Versus set a bevy of viewership records. It scored the biggest audience in network history on Aug. 9, when 4.35 million viewers tuned in for the women’s soccer gold-medal match between the United States and Japan.
The network rode Olympic programming to average a record-high 590,000 total day viewers (6 a.m. to 6 p.m.) during the week of Aug. 6-12. In fact, the entire third quarter is shaping up to become NBC Sports Network’s most-watched quarter ever thanks to its Olympic performance.
But the network’s performance after the Olympics raises the question of whether the theory of an “Olympic bounce” even exists.
“The bounce exists for the two weeks during the Olympics,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president and director of research for Horizon Media.
The drop-off since London is dramatic.
In the six weeks after the Olympics (Aug. 13 to Sept. 23), NBC Sports Network’s prime-time audience dropped 38 percent from the same six weeks of 2011. During that same six-week post-Olympic period, NBC Sports Network averaged 93,000 prime-time viewers. Its total day audience dropped 26 percent, to 48,000 viewers.
Shows promoted during the Olympics — and launched just afterward — have not found audiences. The MLB show “Caught Looking” has averaged 22,000 viewers for its first five original telecasts. The network’s morning highlights show “The Lights” has averaged 10,000 viewers for its telecasts.
For comparison’s sake, Versus’ most-watched shows in August 2011 came from genres that NBC has de-emphasized: mixed martial arts and Professional Bull Riders events, which regularly averaged more than 200,000 viewers.
Even network stars like Bob Costas have drawn tepid interest post-London. An original “Costas Tonight” drew only 40,000 viewers on Aug. 29. That’s down 63 percent from the viewer figure of the three previous episodes (which averaged 109,000).
Adgate pointed to NBC’s “Today” show as further evidence that the Olympic bounce doesn’t really exist. During the Olympics, the morning show trounced its competitors. For the week of July 30, “Today” averaged a 6.0 rating compared with “Good Morning America’s” 2.5, Adgate said.
The week after the Olympics (Aug. 13), ABC’s “Good Morning America” was back on top with a 4.6 rating, compared with “Today’s” 4.4.
“Once the Games end, networks and shows fall back to their previous levels,” Adgate said.
That’s what happened at NBC Sports Network. But the viewer erosion put the channel well below the figures from a year before. NBC executives say they expected some viewer losses after making a decision to cut shows that brought good ratings, like MMA and outdoors programming, in favor of studio fare that is easier to sell and a better fit with the broadcast network. Plus, last year the channel carried several Pac-12 football games; this year, it has to make do with much lower-rated Colonial Athletic Association games.
NBC executives say they use NBC Sports Network to support larger events that appear on the broadcast network, like the Olympics, “Sunday Night Football” and horse racing. NBC executives credit NBC Sports Network with helping the company produce the most-watched Super Bowl and Olympic Games in a seven-month span.
One problem for the network is that it did not have many live events in those post-Olympic weeks.
In a statement NBC Sports provided to SportsBusiness Journal, an NBC spokesman said: “Of course we want high ratings, and we have high ratings when we have live events, such as the Olympics, NHL, Tour de France and MLS.
We’re still finding our way with original programming, but the investment in that content has been rewarded by advertisers and cable operators, as we’ve replaced time-buys with quality sports programming that we sell ads against. The network has generated significantly more revenue this year than 2011. We will continue to acquire properties and create original programming that we believe is good for our already profitable business. We will not overspend on properties that we don’t feel make good business sense for us or our customers.”
Insiders feel the network’s struggles can be attributed to the lack of enough live events during the week to attract viewers. This month, old movies like “Rocky” and “Any Given Sunday” have had coveted prime-time positions and have brought the biggest audiences to the network.
The prospect of losing NHL games due to the lockout further complicates the channel’s fall schedule.
“Live events are what draws viewers to sports networks,” Adgate said. “If the NHL doesn’t play, NBC Sports Network won’t have a lot of compelling live events.”