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Low Olympics ratings: What went wrong and what can we glean?

August 29, 2016 | By Jennifer Bassett, Managing Editor—Outbrain @Jabers

Everyone has been talking about the disappointing viewership of this year’s Olympics. Deadline reported that the Rio Olympics numbers had fallen 12% night-for-night from 2012. Additionally, the final Friday for Rio saw an audience drop of 19% from the comparable night of London 2012, which was also one of the lowest rated nights of that Olympics four years ago. Moreover, viewership among 18-to-49-year-old’s dropped by 25%.

While the viewer shift to live-streaming is one factor, that’s still a big dip. So, what happened?

The Buzz Before and During: A Comparison
Outbrain took a look to see if our headline data on the Olympics for 2012 vs. 2016 offered any insights. Here’s what we found.

The most clicked headline in 2012 was “The 8 Richest Athletes at the 2012 Olympics,” which was published four days after the 2012 Olympics began.

However, in 2016, the biggest spike in Olympics data consumption happened on 7/24/2016, 12 days before the opening ceremonies: “IOC decides against complete ban on Russians from Rio Olympics,” an Associated Press story that ran on multiple outlets.


Additionally, 7 out of 10 of the top headlines we pulled from June 1st to the day after the Olympics were also arguably negative. And while the Top 10 Olympic Headlines in 2012 weren’t exactly beacons of positivity, their tenor was certainly more playful than grave.

A deeper look into our data from the period of 6/26/16 to 7/28/16 also reveals that whereas the largest content volume by keyword around the Olympics contained the keywords Russia and Zika, the two most in demand keywords (which were offered to audiences in relatively low volumes) were track and basketball.

So, while people may have wanted to read about the athletes and more positive (or even silly) stories, the majority of the content on the Olympics was far more negative.

One extrapolation is that all the negative coverage could have impacted the excitement going into the Olympics. Also, because the negative buzz peaked so early, it is possible that people were turned off by the games and neglected to consume content—or tune in—as the event progressed.

However, that’s just once piece of the puzzle. When taking in the bigger picture of the Olympics media coverage, here are some additional theories as to why we saw the ratings slip.

1. Competing Headlines
Pre-Olympics, our focus was elsewhere—particularly among the coveted Millennial Audience. If anything, July was the month of Pokemon Go, a viral sensation. One theory is that for these viewers, VR proved more engaging than real sports unfolding in front of them. Additionally, no one will disagree that this year’s election is uniquely engaging, with a new devastating headline emerging daily—if not hourly. It may have also been a distraction.

2. Complementary Headlines
It is also possible that the “IOC decides against complete ban on Russians from Rio Olympics” story took on more steam because of how it tapped into the overall narrative about Russia that has been unfolding in the US media. It is notable that July 27 (the peak consumption day for Olympics related content) was also when the Russia DNC hack gained credibility by American Intelligence. News outlets released a number of stories about this on July 27, the same day that the IOC Olympics headline peaked. While just a theory, it is possible that the Russia vs. American storyline was starting to sharpen and that the IOC’s ban lift only fueled more flame in the fire. It is also possible that people were just increasingly more interested in Russian-dominated storylines. Publishers may also have seen more click-throughs with this type of content and spotlighted it.

3. The Negative Headlines Didn’t Stop
Throughout the games there were sexist and racists media blunders all over the place. Add to this, the green Olympic pool and the Ryan Lochte embarrassment later in the game. These factors clearly contributed to the overwhelmingly negative tenor of the Olympics narrative this year, drowning out any positive coverage that emerged.

4. Olympics is No Longer a TV Event
No surprise here—we’re witnessing the demise of “event TV.” Super Bowl ratings also saw all-time lows and so did March Madness Championship ratings. Whereas people used to sit around the TV watching the Olympics together—and most live sporting events—that is happening less and less. Instead, people tune in on different mediums. (Such as Snapchat.) The recent Olympics ratings only further support this trend.  And to be honest, while 2012 Olympics ratings were better than this year, they were also an all-time low, which may suggest an overall trend towards declining Olympic viewership. Then again, it is possible that by embracing alternative viewing experiences (and a content narrative that consumers enjoy), this trend could be reversed.

5. The US Performs Too Well
Slate’s Justin Peters had an interesting theory that the US victory has become so normalized that viewers now ignore great performances. The drama—particularly for most covered sports like swimming and gymnastics—wasn’t there. Meanwhile, the sports the U.S. doesn’t dominate, like table tennis, badminton, and diving weren’t extensively covered by NBC.

What’s Next?
Already, there’s buzz about Japan hosting the next Olympics and everyone hopes that the next Olympics will be a turn in a positive direction. Early headlines seem promising, with their prime minister dressed up as Mario, “green” medals, and exciting new technology. But will it be enough to draw people in and will the headlines be as positive a month before the Olympic events commence? And, moreover, will it be enough to combat all the other competing trends? We’ll have to wait and see how it all unfolds.

As our data shows, exposure to positive or negative headlines early on definitely does appear to be one piece of the story. Overall, what we do know is that 2016 viewers were not as engaged as in years past. Whatever the reason, they tuned out. And the marketers that rely on their dollars will need to work hard to get them to tune back in.

JenniferBassettJennifer Bassett is Outbrain’s Managing Editor. She has 10+ years of experience in the content strategy and editorial space. She began her career as a book editor and has consulted for top agencies, non-profits, and media companies including Memorial Sloan Kettering, Havas Worldwide New York, and Interbrand. When she’s not talking content, she’s playing music with her bands The Missing Footage and The Living Kills. You can read more of her writing at jennifer-bassett.com.

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