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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Beijing Olympic ratings were the worst of any Winter Games

The closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing on Sunday.

By Tiffany Tsu

An average of 11.4 million viewers watched the Beijing Olympics on NBCUniversal platforms each night — the smallest prime-time audience on record for any Winter Games and well off the 19.8 million nightly viewers for the Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018.

More than two weeks of coverage, starting with the frigid opening show Feb. 4 and ending Sunday, drew 160 million total viewers across the NBC television channel, the Peacock streaming service and other platforms, NBCUniversal said Monday.

Dramatic storylines proliferated during NBCUniversal’s 2,800 hours of coverage, but few catered to an audience that may have craved escapist forays and tales of triumph. Pandemic restrictions forced the competitions to take place in a bubble. The result: mostly empty stands, and NBC announcers such as Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski having to deliver their dispatches from a compound in Connecticut.

Several of the most memorable episodes lacked the uplifting, inspirational qualities that make for blockbuster Olympic broadcasts. Mikaela Shiffrin, an American skier who had won three Olympic medals before arriving in Beijing, stumbled disastrously in several events and went home empty-handed. Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old Russian figure skating star, fell apart during her free skate while weathering a doping scandal. When she stepped off the ice, her coach berated her on camera.

Geopolitical tensions also dogged the Olympics. China tried to scrub the Games of political overtones using bots and fake accounts. And concern about the welfare of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who last year accused a political official of sexual abuse, threatened to overshadow the Games.

“The Olympics brand is really struggling. A lot of people don’t feel that emotional connection anymore,” said Tang Tang, a media professor at Kent State University who has studied the Olympics.

The Beijing Olympics lacked the kind of powerhouse narrative that turned U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps and his eight gold medals into must-watch TV in 2008. One of the breakout stars of this year’s Games, Chinese American skier Eileen Gu, competed for China rather than the United States. And players in the NHL didn’t participate.

“Audiences watch the Olympics for the stories. They need that superhero story, that star quality,” Tang said. “They don’t really see the Olympics as a true sporting event, but rather as something more personal.”

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