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Penny Oleksiak of Canada competes in the Tokyo Olympics at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 28, 2021.ALEKSANDRA SZMIGIEL/Reuters

Back in the day, the Olympics, winter or summer, presented an opportunity for mischief and daring. An opportunity, that is, for competing outlets to offer a dazzling alternative. In 2000, CTV countered CBC’s coverage of the Sydney games by running Season 1 of HBO’s The Sopranos, the first time the acclaimed show had aired on anything except premium cable. As recently as 2016, CTV countered CBC’s broadcast of the Rio games by offering the first North American network airing of Game of Thrones.

This year, there’s not so much mischief and attempted cleverness, perhaps because the pandemic reduced the amount of new programming, or perhaps because the competition – for CBC here and for NBC in the United States – threw up their hands. There is barely a ripple of counterprogramming.

A wise decision, it turns out. CBC has released the numbers, and they’re good.

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Love Island, anyone? Anyone? The competitive dating show, airing most weeknights, is the best CTV can offer. It’s all beach bodies, swimwear, bare male chests and stuff like that, as inarticulate singles play mindless games and get voted off or stay on. Yes, there is a certain audience for that.

Meanwhile Global, along with CBS, is offering Big Brother several nights a week. Remember that thing? Official summary from CBS: “A group of strangers live together in a house outfitted with cameras and microphones.” Right. More likely you’ll find people you dislike who, if you saw them coming, you’d cross the street to avoid encountering them.

You could speculate that one reason for less counterprograming is the existence of multiple streaming services. Well, Netflix has upped the number of competitive dating shows, too. There’s the ridiculous but dull Sexy Beasts, for a start.

Thing is, Canadians are loving the Olympics coverage on CBC. Newly released figures for the first few days have CBC boasting. Never mind the time difference that puts evening events in the mornings. Never mind the confusion about what’s streaming and what’s on the main CBC channel. The numbers are good.

The repeat of the Opening Ceremony in prime time last Friday had an average audience of 1.25 million viewers tuning in at various points. On the weekend, as our women swimmers picked up medals galore, Canadians watched. Swimmers Maggie Mac Neil and Penny Oleksiak won gold and silver as millions watched. The peak was reached on Sunday when Mac Neil won and 2.35 million Canadians looked on.

CBC is also saying that the viewing numbers are increasing every day. On Wednesday it issued this boast: “Since the beginning of the Games until Monday, July 26, more than half of all Canadians have watched television coverage on CBC/Radio-Canada, with 20.3 million viewers tuning in on either an English or French TV network to date and more watching CBC than any other network in Canada. Additionally, CBC is marking record digital audiences for Tokyo 2020 with 8.4 million video views on CBC digital platforms so far, an increase of 65 per cent compared to the same period during Pyeongchang 2018, which had a similar time difference of 11 to 16 hours for viewers in time zones.”

It’s fair to crow about that. For all the frustrations involved – don’t even try talking to people who attempted to watch ad-filled skateboarding coverage on CBC digital – the Games are, so far, a ratings success. CBC having 2.35 million viewers in prime time is unusual these days.

In the United States, NBC is struggling with its coverage and weak ratings compared with previous Games. (The withdrawal of Simone Biles isn’t going to help in the coming days.) As viewers drift to NBC Universal’s digital platforms to watch at a time of their own choosing, advertisers say they’re not getting their money’s worth. The trade papers that cover the TV industry are filled with stories about NBC Universal having to offer “make goods,” which means ads given to sponsors later on, because a program failed to meet its estimated audience.

CBC’s ratings success is not inexplicable. Why watch the trashy pedestrian drama of Love Island when you can see real heroes in swimwear reach the podium? Why watch Big Brother when you can watch a group of elite athletes who live together in extraordinary, restricted conditions in Tokyo? Most of all, the ratings success arises from one fact: Canadian women keep on winning medals. You can’t counterprogram against that.

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