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Can Comcast and Peacock Win Olympic Gold Despite a Fan Ban and Viewer Concerns?

Brian Roberts and IOC President Thomas Bach
Comcast CEO and Thomas Bach seen in 2014, less than six feet apart, when the media-telecom conglomerate re-upped its Olympics broadcast rights through 2032. (Image credit: IOC)

You may have heard—perhaps someone mentioned it in passing as you prepped for your Hot Vax Summer of louche parties and road trips and just getting the heck out of here—that the 2020 Olympics are about to start. Yes, it’s mid-2021, and no, there’s no name change or even much apparent introspection about holding giant international public events with a pandemic still raging in far-flung outposts from Arkansas to Africa, and also Japan, where the games happen to start Friday. 

That’s only the first of a bunch of issues that make the Tokyo 2020 Olympics unlike any in memory. Basically, these games are more fraught, more complicated, and less of a sure thing than any Olympics telecast in decades. 

And given the billions of dollars Comcast and its NBCUniversal unit have invested to carry the games, and how much they’re depending on huge viewership to make back that investment, watching the business side of these games may be nearly (and only nearly) as interesting as Simone Biles’ latest impossible gymnastic gyration. 

It’s also a chance for the Peacock streaming service to grab a much-needed boost at a time when Comcast CEO Brian Roberts reportedly is mulling the purchase of Roku or ViacomCBS because he fears Comcast isn’t yet big enough in digital video to truly compete.

At least Comcast had a good week last week. On the one-year anniversary of Peacock’s public launch, Comcast said the service has secured $500 million in ad commitments for the year, part of NBCUniversal's biggest-ever upfront season. NBCU’s 16 other broadcast, cable and digital networks collectively “delivered double-digit percent increases in volume and pricing” during the period.

I’m always suspicious of claims about big percentage hikes that aren’t connected to actual dollar amounts, particularly for an organization whose broadcast and cable operations had a  difficult spring and summer 2020. The comps should be easy, I might suggest. But as Australia’s medal-winning swimmers like to say, good on ya. 

Separately, data company iSpot.tv reported national linear TV ads rose 9% the first half of 2021, to an estimated $21.4 billion. NBCU absolutely benefited from that resurgent tide, as some variant of normalcy crept back into traditional TV viewing. 

The downside of that impressive revenue number: impressions continued to wilt, down 6.1% to 3.8 trillion, as viewers increasingly watch “TV” in other ways. It’s hard to believe that ad revenues will keep going up if ad watching keeps going down. But for now, the money’s very nice, so again, good on them. 

And speaking of records, as people do when talking Olympics, Kantar Media projects Comcast/NBCU will haul in $2.25 billion in U.S. Olympics ad revenue, up 20% from the previous high of $1.85 billion. And once again, if that comes to pass, good on them.

But this is going to be a complicated Olympics, with few guarantees for athletes, organizers, broadcasters, advertisers, and audiences. 

Many of the Japanese companies that splashed out big money for a piece of the Games in their backyard likely will be stuck with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of merchandise they had hoped to shill to attendees (that’s one big reason why it’s still called the 2020 Games). 

But with the pandemic surging in Japan, fans are banned from most events. Wait a month and you’ll be able to buy your very own, very special Tokyo Games commemorative vuvuzela or bento box for what’s likely to be an even more special low price. It’ll almost like being there, minus the exposure to a global pandemic. 

A lack of fans may also affect the quality of the games and the competition, even for those viewing on air or online. As we discovered in the NBA’s “bubble” playoffs last year, live sports minus live sports fans is just not the same thing.

On top of that, it turns out we Americans are really ambivalent about these games in general, related Kantar survey data suggests. 

The good news: About three in five Americans surveyed said they were interested in watching the Tokyo games. Based on my own recent 2,000-mile road trip around the Southwest, the rest of the American populace will be hanging out somewhere between St. George, Utah, and Buena Vista, Colorado, sitting in a rented RV. 

Also, though, some bad news: More than half the Kantar survey respondents “still believe the games should be postponed further, or cancelled altogether.” That suggests a certain lack of urgency to watch. 

So, to count this one up, many Americans are interested, though no fan from this or any other country can go in person, and plenty of them can’t shake a haunting feeling that maybe this isn’t the best time to barge ahead, corporate prerogatives be damned. 

And a full week before the Olympics start, we’ve already had the first cases affecting people in the Olympic Village itself. U.S. sports teams, including the New York Yankees and Milwaukee Bucks this week, haven’t had much better luck walling off their personnel from Covid-19, so random infectious outbreaks could become the backbeat of the Games, shaping who medals, or even gets to compete. 

There’s also that whole time-zone dislocation that viewers face whenever the Olympics are held on the other side of the planet. Whoever watches is either doing it at dawn (thank goodness for #WFH) or watching a highly processed version several hours later in prime time, after they’ve already had half a day to skim their social-media feeds. 

Last year, the Olympics were supposed to be the wind beneath the wings of Peacock, soaring above a tsunami of exclusive shows just days after its public launch. Instead, we got two months of Harry Potter movies before they cycled back to HBO Max. 

Minus the Olympics and a whole bunch of other pandemic-interrupted original shows, Peacock the streaming network flew about as high as peacocks, the land-hugging fowl with creepy surveillance feathers. 

So this could be a profitable Olympic Games for Comcast, with endless hours of programming available on more NBCU outlets than ever for viewers wherever they may be looking. 

But all that programming may end up bereft of that little thing that makes advertisers really happy: ardent viewers. Or maybe, in this extraordinary moment, the Olympics will reclaim some of the athletic magic so many still treasure. 

Comcast better hope so. It’s on the hook for Olympics rights through 2032, a deal signed in a different time, way back in 2014. As Ethiopia’s record-setting marathoners like to point out, it’s not a sprint. Rather, it’s a long run over many years across difficult terrain with no guarantee what the TV landscape will look like more than a decade from now.

The much bigger question is less about whether Comcast makes a couple of billion dollars during these crazy Tokyo Games, and more about whether audiences still hold a special place for the Olympics even while they radically transform all the rest of their TV viewing habits. As Olympians like to say, good luck.