Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony scores lowest rating in 33 years

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

If you are less than enthusiastic about watching the Tokyo Olympics, you are not alone. The ratings are in and the opening ceremony which aired Friday evening in the United States drew the smallest viewership in 33 years. Preliminary data from Comcast-owned NBCUniversal shows that just 16.7 million Americans tuned in for the official opening of the Olympic games.


Part of the decline can be explained by the acknowledgment that viewing habits are changing. Many people now watch sports events online with apps on mobile devices. NBC is offering many ways in which to watch your favorite competition. Besides the traditional NBC network channel on your television, they are also showing competitions on sister networks (like the USA channel and NBCSH on cable) under the NBCUniversal umbrella as well as online streaming. This allows more games to be seen if people tune in. For example, on Saturday I watched a dressage competition on the USA channel that wasn’t shown on the NBC station.

Across all platforms, including and the NBC Sports app, 17 million people watched the ceremony, NBCUniversal said in an email.

The streaming audience on those platforms grew 76 percent from the 2018 PyeongChang opening ceremony and 72 percent from the 2016 Rio opener, reflecting a change in viewing habits.

I wasn’t able to watch most of the Opening Ceremony but I was able to tune in when Team USA marched in. For those of us who do enjoy the Olympics, usually, this is a fun event to watch. Teams are in their national uniforms and the ceremony is always elaborate, ending with fireworks. This year wasn’t like the others, though. It was really just kinda sad. Most of the seats in the stands were empty and most of the applause had to come from the teams themselves. The excitement from an enthusiastic crowd of supporters was missing. There were camera shots of families left out this year due to the pandemic watching from home and that was just depressing. Imagine being a parent of an Olympic athlete and being told you can’t attend this year’s Olympics.


Friday’s audience reflects a steep drop, despite difficult comparisons with previous opening ceremonies when viewers had fewer streaming options.

The Tokyo opener TV audience declined 37 percent from 2016, when 26.5 million people watched the Rio de Janeiro Games opener, and 59 percent from 2012, when 40.7 million people watched the London ceremony.

It was the lowest audience for the opening ceremony since the 1988 Seoul Games, which attracted 22.7 million TV viewers. It was also lower than the 1992 Barcelona Games, when 21.6 million people tuned in, according to Nielsen data.

Jill Biden was there to represent the U.S. but Joe wasn’t. He was busy trashing Trump and his supporters during a campaign event for his friend Terry McAullife in Virginia. Jill, too, did some Trump-bashing but did it in a more private setting. Embarrassing to most of us, the Japanese prime minister pointedly invited Jill and not Joe to attend the ceremony. So much for all the respect, Joe thinks the world has for America through him now that there is a new president. Anyway, world leaders like Macron have shown up. Former Prime Minister Abe, though, has not.

The Tokyo Olympics have had their share of bad press. It’s understandable that people have lost interest. A lot of it centers around the COVID-19 pandemic. A some points along the way it was uncertain that the games would be held. Fans and families were banned from traveling to Japan. Politics come into the picture and that turns off a lot of people. Most Americans don’t want to see athletes in any sport, especially the world games, turn their backs on the American flag or the national anthem. It’s happened for decades but most Americans don’t want politics infiltrating sports. We watch sports as a distraction from real life.


The concern over the spread of the coronavirus is real. It’s why there is a ban on spectators, even local Japanese fans. Japan’s rate of COVID-19 vaccination is low. Only about 23% of its population is fully vaccinated.

And as of Friday morning, 110 people connected with the Olympics tested positive for the virus, according to USA Today, including 13 athletes and 12 people who were residing in the Olympic Village at the time of their test.

Referring to the figures, the authority said it is ‘highly possible’ that the healthcare system will face a crisis, urging for a ‘robust plan and system’ amid the increased spread of the Delta variant.

Only 23 per cent of the Japanese population is fully vaccinated. Meanwhile in Britain, 69.5 per cent of adults have received both jabs, according to UK Government data up to July 22.

Experts are concerned that the Games, which started yesterday in Tokyo, could accelerate already rising case numbers in the city and across the country as a whole.

Public polling in Japan shows that the vast majority of the people do not want the Olympics to go forward. They think it should have been postponed or canceled because of the pandemic. There have been public demonstrations in the streets of Tokyo. Tokyo police even help the demonstrators by helping to clear the roads for them and keeping passersby out of their way.


Not all athletes were able to attend the opening ceremonies and there is a time difference between Japan and across the U.S. to consider.

And not all athletes were present at the teams’ parade during the opening ceremony, due to rules that require many to fly in just before their competitions and leave shortly after to limit social contact.

With Tokyo 13 hours ahead of the United States East Coast, NBC for the first time broadcast the ceremony live in the morning, at 6:55 a.m. ET Friday. NBC’s taped, primetime broadcast began at 7:30 p.m. ET.

In its primetime coverage, NBC acknowledged the pandemic and its toll while presenting the Olympics as a positive event.

‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ said host Savannah Guthrie, co-anchor of NBC News’ Today show. ‘There’s nothing like an opening ceremony to really get you excited for the Olympic Games.’

Somewhere I read that applause and cheering will be piped in for the athletes. That sounds icky like when a television sitcom uses a laugh track. The athletes are well aware that no one is in the stands. I’ll be tuning in for my favorite events as I usually do, especially to cheer for our hometown favorite, Simone Biles.


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