When we spoke with Gary Zenkel, the president of NBC Olympics, back in May, he told us he didn’t have a specific viewership target in mind when it came to the 2021 Paralympics. “We don’t need to set ratings records,” Zenkel said, explaining the network’s goals in airing an unprecedented 1200-plus hours of Paralympic competition this year. “But it would be great if some of these unbelievably compelling stories resonate and become part of the conversation.”
By that measure, NBC appears to have met its objective. Paralympic athletes, highlights, and news got showcased in venues such as ESPN, People, the LA Times, and all over social media. The Games managed to make an impression despite a tough environment for international sports programming (the able-bodied Olympics drew the smallest audiences of any Games in this century) and a 13-hour time lag that meant most events occurred overnight. In addition, the Paralympics coincided with a jam-packed news cycle that included the military withdrawal from Afghanistan, a major hurricane, the resumption of school under pandemic conditions, and the first big weekend of college football.
Despite all those adverse factors and competition for people’s attention, the Paralympics do seem to have found an audience. The night after NBC’s first primetime Paralympics special, an article making the rounds in the industry press was headlined: “NBC Wins Sunday Gold With Tokyo Paralympics.” Early ratings data are notoriously fickle and subject to later revision (final tabulations of global viewership for the Olympics, which concluded a month ago, won’t be published for another few months), but based on the sketchy preliminary results we do have, the Paralympics seem to have held their own. They didn’t set any records, as Zenkel correctly anticipated, but there were some bright spots.
In fact, the first reports were downright impressive. The audience for NBC’s hour-long prime-time broadcast on August 29 was initially estimated at more than 4 million viewers. That figure was subsequently revised down into the 2 million range, a less exciting figure but still four times higher than the US Paralympic viewership from 2016. This past weekend’s network programming on Saturday and Sunday garnered another few million viewers despite airing directly opposite 60 Minutes and some high-powered college football broadcasts.
Add in the people who watched the Paralympics during the week on NBC’s cable channels (primarily NBC Sports Network and Olympic Channel) and streaming platforms (Peacock and NBC Sports Digital), and the Tokyo Games easily surpassed previous US viewership levels by many multiples. We’re not brave (or foolhardy) enough to hazard a guess at the overall audience, but there are plenty of encouraging signs. When the final numbers are available, we’ll pass them along.