After dozens of Olympics on television, you might think it would be easy for a network programmer to figure out which sports Canadian audiences want to watch. But conventional wisdom goes only so far. “In a Winter Games, it’s pretty much: hockey, figure skating, curling – and then you sort everything else out,” said Chris Irwin, the executive producer and head of production for CBC Olympics, in a recent interview. “But a Summer Games, once you get past the big three – athletics, aquatics, gymnastics – everyone in the room has a different opinion.”
In the entertainment realm, TV networks that are programming a new show might base decisions on the performance of similar fare: if CSI Miami pulls in 10 million viewers on Thursdays in primetime, it’s a safe bet CSI: Poughkeepsie would do more or less the same. That works for sports, too: Networks can project with some accuracy the viewership numbers for a typical Yankees or Maple Leafs game.
But the relative rarity of the Olympic Games, combined with their changing locations and the head-swirling developments in both technology and viewer habits, have made historical comparisons of little use for the Tokyo Games, which will unfold 11½ to 16 hours ahead of viewers watching across Canada.
“It’s definitely part science, part art form,” Irwin said.
What to watch at the Tokyo Olympics: Everything you need to know about the Summer Games
Looking at data from the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, “you have the right time zone [as Tokyo], but it’s winter sports, so nothing is relevant. You go back to Rio, and it’s summer sports on the same schedule, but nothing is relevant from a time-zone perspective,” he said. “So, when you get people weighing in and saying, ‘The highest-rated sporting hour in Rio was this [particular event],’ you say, ‘Yes, but that’s because it was at 9 o’clock eastern time and it followed that big, huge other thing.’ And then you try to map that to Tokyo, and [that same sport] is at 8 a.m. and the available audience is one-tenth of what it is [in primetime].
“So, the last comparable Olympics with information that could help you make better decisions was [the Beijing Games in] 2008 – and you can imagine how irrelevant that research is. Nobody was watching streaming. There wasn’t even an app in 2010,” for the Vancouver Games. “So the idea that people [might watch the Olympics] on their phones, and in their beds and on trains and planes and everything, was just non-existent until this cycle.”
Canadians will have a dizzying array of ways to access these Games: five broadcast channels (the main CBC network, which will devote 23 hours every weekday, and 24 hours on weekend days, to coverage; two channels each of CBC’s sub-licensees, TSN and Sportsnet); up to 20 livestreams at once on CBC’s Gem app, the new CBC Olympics app, and the CBC Olympics website. Amazon Prime will have a CBC Olympics hub filled with live games and replays. Select bits of content will run on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. CBC Sports even started up a TikTok account for Tokyo.
“As we look at these Olympics and [the 2022 Winter Games] coming up, and Paris [in 2024] down the road, I’m convinced it’s our responsibility not to just expect Canadians to come to the main channel and watch it like they used to,” said Chris Wilson, the executive director of CBC Sports and Olympics. We’ve got to challenge ourselves to present the Olympic content in different ways, on different platforms and be very creative with our partners.”
Mindful of its role as a public broadcaster, the CBC will be offering the opening ceremony, which airs Friday morning, in eight Indigenous languages on its online platforms: Eastern Cree, Dehcho Dene, Denesuline, Gwichʼin, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, Sahtu Dene and Tlicho.
And while TSN and Sportsnet are only available to paying subscribers, all of the action airing on those cable networks will also be available free on the CBC’s streaming platforms.
That free and universal access – at least for those who have broadband internet – contrasts with the United States, where NBC will spread content across its over-the-air network and several of its pay cable channels. And it is using the Games to push subscriptions to its new streaming service, Peacock.
The CBC is also treating these Games as a promotional opportunity. “We’re certainly interested to see if we can drive additional awareness and additional free subscriptions to Gem,” Wilson said. “There’s no question that Gem is a massive part of our future.”
During the Games themselves, all of those online platforms will help Irwin and his team take the country’s pulse on a continuing basis: They’ll be able to see, in real time, what people are engaging with, what they’re sharing. “Actual clicks, actual minutes, actual numbers, when [viewers] joined, when they left: There are some very specific things that the digital and social metrics can tell us all about what the country is thinking, what the users are thinking,” Irwin said. But, he adds, those numbers need to be read with some caution. Social media is not a perfect proxy for the wider world.
And while the CBC can simply run all of the available sports on its online platforms, it needs to aggregate the largest possible audience for the five broadcast channels at its disposal, especially the main CBC network. That’s where it will aim to show the biggest event of interest to Canadians at any given moment. Long-form competitions – including team sports, road races, golf – will be carried on TSN and Sportsnet, with the CBC main channel possibly cutting in to the final minutes.
Recognizing that many viewers can and do access results on their phones as soon as they occur, the CBC decided years ago it would prioritize live events. “That’s where the change has come to the global media [landscape],” Irwin said. “You can no longer stage the release of information in a way that makes a show [of tape-delayed content] work, or make an audience play along.”
So the broadcaster decided “live trumped everything, and that your filters to make decisions started with live – live Canadian, live of Canadian interest – and worked its way down, to delayed international events that aren’t for medals.” That made it immediately clear where an event might end up on its matrix of outlets.
Irwin knows that makes it challenging to bring in a primetime audience, but he says there is still a hunger for that communal, narrative experience. “The audience, if they love [a particular sport], they did see it when it happened live,” possibly hours before. “And we told them about it on our digital platforms and in our shows and social [media] talked about it, and our daytime show reviewed it, and we’ve interviewed athletes since it happened. But now we have a very captive audience that has made an appointment to come and watch us tonight, when they have a chance to sit down. And we’ve made them a promise that we’re going to tell them a story.”
Sign up for The Globe’s Olympic newsletter and follow all of the news, features and opinion in the leadup to the Summer Games in Tokyo.