“You can only play the hand you’ve been dealt, and they’ve been dealt a difficult hand,” said Bob Costas, who spent 24 years as NBC’s prime-time Olympics host before leaving the network in 2017. “You can’t create something out of thin air. Everybody knows that this is, we hope, a one-of-a-kind Olympics.”
“It’s like if somebody is running the 100 meters and they have a weight around their ankles,” Mr. Costas continued. “That is not a fair judge of their speed.”
A widespread change in viewing habits, from traditional TV to streaming platforms, has been a big factor in the number of people watching. While NBC’s prime-time audience has shrunk considerably from what it was for the Rio games five years ago, the Olympics broadcasts are still bringing in significantly more viewers than even the most popular entertainment shows. The most recent episode of CBS’s “Big Brother,” a ratings leader, drew an audience of less than four million.
“We had a little bit of bad luck — there was a drumbeat of negativity,” said Jeff Shell, the chief executive of NBCUniversal, during a conference call last week, after NBC’s parent company, Comcast, reported its second-quarter earnings. The less-than-festive atmosphere, he added, “has resulted a little bit in linear ratings being probably less than we expected.”