NBC Scrambles for High Ratings at Olympics Amid Negative Publicity

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There are billions of dollars at stake. NBCUniversal, which controls U.S. TV rights to the Olympics through 2032, is hoping that the athleticism on the field will eventually take over the narrative and bring solid ratings for the global event.

The controversy around staging the Olympics, even with no spectators, has thrown Japan into a “state of emergency.” The pandemic has impacted NBC, as producers were unable to get sports coverage of Team USA and other competitors showcasing their training in preparation for the events. Japan’s state of emergency caused the government to bar both foreign and local spectators from being in the audience for the events, which creates a very different atmosphere for the broadcasts. And the pandemic has brought other challenges: A deaf and blind Paralympian swimmer was forced to withdraw from the Tokyo Games because strict COVID-19 rules meant she couldn’t bring her mother as an assistant. Quarantine restrictions also meant breastfeeding mothers were unable to bring their infants to Japan.

Many Japanese people think the Games shouldn’t take place at all. A recent poll found that 52% of Americans believe that the Olympic Games in Tokyo should happen, while only 22% of people in Japan expressed the same sentiment. With most host countries thriving on getting recognition for being the epicenter of the Games, not wanting them to happen at all was unprecedented until 2021.

Apart from fans, competitors and volunteers have dropped out as well. From tennis legend Serena Williams backing out due to travel restrictions, to the New York Times reporting that 10,000 out of 80,000 volunteers quit due to coronavirus scares, the pressure for NBC and its advertisers to bring in monetary gain for the Games is looming.

“On the business side, future bids for transmission and merchandise rights might contain price adjustment clauses for occurrences like pandemics, or political events that could destroy the value of the rights,” professor Erik Gordon of University of Michigan’s Ross School told Variety.

“It is an Olympics that only core fans care about,” said Gordon.

This year’s Olympic Games is truly for the die-hards — the devoted fans who wait four years for their country to have front and center stage, as opposed to those who suddenly realize the games are on the air. Although the Olympics are meant to be apolitical, the rising nationalism and geopolitics are influencing the games more than ever. Just recently, Naomi Osaka received racist backlash for repping Japan in this year’s games, as opposed to the U.S where she now holds citizenship.

When it comes to U.S. viewership, NBC will also have to consider whether there are reasons aside from the pandemic that the Games’ profile might be waning. As one of the world’s longest-running events, with roots that stretch back to ancient Greece, one big question now is whether the Games and its policies need a thorough revamp.

From track star Sha’Carri Richardson — the winner of the 100m for the Olympic trials — being banned from participating in the Olympics for Team USA after testing positive for marijuana use, to African American swimmers being prohibited from wearing swimming caps that function better for their coarser, thicker hair, to Namibian track and field stars Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi being banned from competing in the women’s 400 meter because their natural testosterone levels are too high, many Americans are expressing that the games still have a long way to go to be inclusive of all athletes of all countries.

Olympic fatigue is also a concern for both athletes and spectators, with the pandemic pushing the summer Olympics to 2021. Audiences will be rushing back just six months later for the 2022 winter Olympic Games being held in Beijing. The Beijing Olympics will be under intense political scrutiny, as rising protests over human rights in China raise calls for a boycott of the games. The topic of human rights violations in host countries are not new; at the 1964 Olympics, the IOC banned South Africa in order to show unity surrounding the disapproval of South African apartheid.