The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona had the Dream Team. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing had the Michael Phelps medal sweep. The Tokyo Olympics has a pandemic.
That has been the greatest challenge for NBCUniversal, the company that paid more than $1 billion to run 7,000 hours of games coverage across two broadcast networks, six cable channels and a fledgling streaming platform, Peacock.
The ratings have been a disappointment, averaging 16.8 million viewers a night through Tuesday, a steep drop from the 29 million who tuned in through the same day of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. NBCUniversal has offered to make up for the smaller than expected television audience by offering free ads to some companies that bought commercial time during the games, according to four people with knowledge of the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations.
The opening ceremony set a downbeat tone. Instead of the usual pageant of athletes smiling and waving to the crowd, there was a procession of participants walking through a mostly empty Tokyo Olympic Stadium, all wearing masks to protect themselves against the spread of Covid-19 as a new variant raged. The live morning broadcast and prime-time replay drew the lowest ratings for an opening ceremony in 33 years, with just under 17 million viewers. The high came Sunday, July 25, when a little more than 20 million people tuned in.
“You can only play the hand you’ve been dealt, and they’ve been dealt a difficult hand,” said Bob Costas, who spent 24 years as NBC’s prime-time Olympics host before leaving the network in 2017. “You can’t create something out of thin air. Everybody knows that this is, we hope, a one-of-a-kind Olympics.”
“It’s like if somebody is running the 100 meters and they have a weight around their ankles,” Mr. Costas continued. “That is not a fair judge of their speed.”
A widespread change in viewing habits, from traditional TV to streaming platforms, has been a big factor in the number of people watching. While NBC’s prime-time audience has shrunk considerably from what it was for the Rio games five years ago, the Olympics broadcasts are still bringing in significantly more viewers than even the most popular entertainment shows. The most recent episode of CBS’s “Big Brother,” a ratings leader, drew an audience of less than four million.
“We had a little bit of bad luck — there was a drumbeat of negativity,” said Jeff Shell, the chief executive of NBCUniversal, during a conference call last week, after NBC’s parent company, Comcast, reported its second-quarter earnings. The less-than-festive atmosphere, he added, “has resulted a little bit in linear ratings being probably less than we expected.”
Still, Mr. Shell said he expected the Tokyo games to be profitable, with ad sales exceeding the cost of coverage. A spokesman for NBCUniversal said on Thursday that total ad sales for the Tokyo games would be higher than that of the Rio Olympics, noting that the games tend to be a more attention-grabbing advertising platform than most other programs.
The absence or early exits of popular athletes from some events, including the gymnast Simone Biles, the runner Sha’Carri Richardson, the tennis champion Naomi Osaka and the basketball star LeBron James, further dimmed expectations. And in a constant reminder of the coronavirus, on-air correspondents have been masked as they keep their distance from the athletes.
Many of the reviews have been scorching, with complaints about a convoluted schedule that made it hard for viewers to find the events they wanted to watch. Critics also found fault with the thicket of distracting split-screen ads on the main NBC broadcast.
“We turn to the Olympics as an escape, as this fun, uplifting experience, and certainly there have been moments like that,” said Jen Chaney, a television critic for Vulture. “But more than anything, watching this year has shown the wounds that we’re dealing with.”
Ms. Chaney noted NBC’s interview with the American swimmer Caeleb Dressel right after he won gold in a glamour event, the men’s 100-meter freestyle. Moved to tears, Mr. Dressel said, “It was a really tough year. It was really hard.”
The 13-hour time-zone difference between Tokyo and the East Coast may have also figured in the drop in prime-time viewers. Many people in the United States have been waking up to phone alerts trumpeting the medal winners who will be featured in that night’s broadcast.
The strongest narratives arising from the competition — such as the American gymnast Sunisa Lee’s all-around win — seemed to gain traction not so much on TV but in snippets shared on social media. That trend has been apparent in the number of followers for NBCUniversal’s Olympics channel on TikTok, which have shot up 348 percent since the opening ceremony.
Those who decide to watch must choose from a jumble of channels and digital options. In addition to NBC, the coverage is spread across NBC Sports Network, CNBC, USA Network, the Olympic Channel, the Golf Channel and the Spanish-language channels Universo and Telemundo, not to mention NBCOlympics.com, the NBC Sports app and Peacock.
There are so many choices that NBC’s “Today” show brought in Steve Kornacki, the political correspondent best known for elucidating election results, to break it all down. “If you’re a badminton fan, you’re going to be looking for NBCSN,” he told viewers. “If you’re an archery fan, USA Network. There’s all sorts of different possibilities!”
When Netflix and other streaming platforms started chipping away at the dominance of traditional TV, live-events coverage was something the networks could rely on to deliver huge numbers of viewers. Lately, though, even blockbuster events, including the NBA Finals, the World Series and the Oscars, have suffered in the ratings.
“The days of mass-media appointment viewing are dwindling down to, like, the Super Bowl,” said Brad Adgate, a media analyst. “If you want to look at the Olympics pessimistically, it’s just not the crown jewel that it used to be.”
The Olympics coverage is headed by the NBCUniversal executive Molly Solomon, who was named the president of NBC Olympics Production in 2019, a few months before the postponement of the 2020 games.
“The Olympics is the most complicated sports event in the world,” she said in an interview on Thursday. “The pandemic has added a layer of complexity.”
The production team consists of more than 3,000 people — 1,600 in Tokyo and 1,700 in the U.S. — who try to keep viewers in the moment by emphasizing tight camera shots that avoid the spectator-free stands and amplifying the natural sounds of the contests (the thud of a volleyball spike, the shouts of runners during relay handoffs).
The production team also incorporates shots of home-watch parties to capture the whoops and hollers of medal winners’ friends and family members back home, mini-segments that required significant advance legwork.
“It’s been a different experience for the viewer, and we’ve tried to enhance it in light of the fact that there weren’t fans here,” said Ms. Solomon, who has worked on the Olympics since she started at NBC in 1990 as a researcher for the network’s coverage of the Barcelona games.
Before she took over, NBCUniversal’s Olympics coverage was run by Jim Bell, who stepped away from Tokyo planning in 2018 when the company placed him in charge of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” He left that program and NBC a year later.
Ms. Solomon said she has been waking up at 4:30 a.m. in Tokyo and relying on double-shot lattes to get her through workdays that may go till 11 p.m. She does not share the opinion of some critics of the coverage.
“Every day, new stars arise, and new stories come to the fore,” she said. “So, personally, I don’t want it to end.”
In the view of Mr. Costas, who guided viewers through NBC’s Olympics coverage from 1992 through 2016, any comparison of the Tokyo games with previous competitions is not fair, given the pall cast by the pandemic. And three years from now, if all goes according to plan, NBCUniversal will get what amounts to a do-over in Paris.
“Paris 2024 will be, we hope, fingers crossed, much more like a classic Olympics situation,” he said. “That will be a more legitimate test.”