Canadian ambivalence over Beijing 2022 seems to be playing out in TV viewership for the Games, with CBC posting initial ratings that are down sharply from previous Winter Olympics and even last summer’s Tokyo Games.
Primetime viewership on CBC for the first six days of events in Beijing is down 22 per cent from Tokyo, and off a whopping 48 per cent from the Pyeongchang Winter Games, according to figures provided Friday to The Globe and Mail by CBC.
After six days of events, Beijing is attracting an average audience of only 1,055,500 on CBC between 7 p.m. (ET) and midnight, not including last Friday’s broadcast featuring the opening ceremony. That compares to an average of 1.29 million viewers for the first six days of events of last summer’s Games, and an average of 1.94 million for the same period in Pyeongchang.
One advertising buyer told The Globe the ratings were about 25-per-cent lower than projections the CBC’s sales department had provided to the industry in advance of the Games, raising the possibility the public broadcaster may have to compensate marketers for failing to reach its expected audience.
The fall-off in CBC’s viewership mirrors a sharp decline in the United States, where NBC has seen its primetime audience fall from about 23 million for the Pyeongchang Games to 12.3 million for Beijing, a drop of about 46 per cent.
And TV viewership for many of Canada’s marquee events is off even more sharply.
Direct comparisons to previous Olympics are difficult, because viewership of some events in Beijing may be lowered by taking place at different times than they did in Pyeongchang.
Still, in 2018, 3.4 million viewers watched CBC’s coverage of Max Parrot and Mark McMorris winning Canada’s first medals, silver and bronze, in the men’s snowboard slopestyle competition, at 9:28 p.m. (ET) on Day 1 of the Pyeongchang Games. This year, when those two riders nabbed gold and bronze in the same event at Beijing, 1.2 million were watching CBC at 12:29 a.m. (ET), a drop of 65 per cent.
CBC also said the most-watched moment of Day 2 of Pyeongchang reached 3.6 million viewers, who tuned in for the Canadian gold-medal win of the figure skating team event, at 9:57 p.m. (ET). The most-watched moment for Day 2 of Beijing occurred when 1.5 million viewers tuned in to the pairs program of the team figure skating event, at 9:06 p.m. (ET).
A number of public-opinion polls in the run-up to Beijing 2022 hinted that Canadians might be disinclined to watch the Games because of China’s alleged human-rights abuses as well as its treatment of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
In December, Canada, Britain, the United States and other countries declared a diplomatic boycott of the Games.
But Adam Seaborn, the director of sales and media operations for Kingstar Media, a media buying and planning agency, suggested the fraught political backdrop may be only one factor depressing viewership. He noted that CBC has sent few reporters to Beijing, and all hosts, analysts, and play-by-play commentators are calling the Games from remote studios in Canada.
As well, CBC had no access to China in order to produce the sort of features spotlighting the culture, history, and geography of the host country that usually add flavour and a different pace to two weeks’ worth of TV coverage.
“Does that hurt the storytelling? You don’t have people on the ground saying, ‘Wow, it’s amazing, the Olympic village!’ and putting that on Instagram and Twitter, to help drive tune-in,” Seaborn noted. “So, all those things together I think are hurting it.”
He said that CBC had told clients it was projecting an average primetime audience of 1.42 million. “At the moment, by my eyes, they’re underdelivering,” he said.
Still, he noted approvingly that CBC’s Olympics broadcasts gave it the top-rated primetime non-news program each night. “They’re getting in the ballpark of a Toronto Maple Leafs game every single night.”
Other observers have suggested Olympic fatigue may be taking its toll, with the Beijing Games taking place only six months after Tokyo. The lack of large crowds dampens the viewing experience. And conventional sports fans still have the NHL and NBA regular season to focus on, as well as this Sunday’s Super Bowl.
Chris Wilson, the executive director of CBC Sports & Olympics, suggested the sharp fall-off from the 2018 Winter Games could be chalked up to the altered TV landscape. “To be honest, we don’t worry too much about comparisons to Pyeongchang,” he said in an interview from Beijing. “It’s just a radically different atmosphere.”
Figures from the ratings service Numeris, provided to The Globe by CBC, indicate viewing across the conventional Canadian television landscape is down about 18 per cent since the Pyeongchang Games, and about 10 per cent just since the Tokyo Games.
Wilson noted that CBC has seen extraordinary growth of its on-line Gem service, which enables Canadian viewers to watch any Olympic events live or on-demand. In a statement, CBC said the number of hours viewed through the first three days of the Beijing Games was up 48 per cent compared to the same time frame for Tokyo.
Wilson insisted the Beijing primetime viewership was heartening to see. “It’s for five hours, we’ve got this big group of loyal committed Olympic fans that just come to it and stay with it late into the evening and early into the morning. That’s definitely important for us and for our partners.”
And he insisted CBC would be able to deliver all of the audiences it has promised to its Olympic clients, noting that some of its biggest events, such as men’s as women’s hockey, had yet to come. “We’re confident of that.”
He added that CBC was also pleased with the growth of its Olympics-focused social-media activity. “Our Tiktok account has been wildly successful,” he said. “We’ve had a few days that were over two million video views. Obviously, that’s coming from a group that might not be that affiliated with CBC Sports on a regular basis, so I think that’s been a really good story for us, as well.”
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