The Olympic Games are must-see TV, but don't tell that to millennials. While the competition in Rio continues to draw strong ratings, even for its tape-delayed primetime events, the millennial generation isn't helping out that trend.
In fact, when you pick apart the numbers, a glaring problem reveals itself. For a competition whose top stars fall into the millennial crowd, their generational peers aren't paying too much attention.
Even on a superficial level, Olympic broadcasts are suffering from declining viewership. As The Wall Street Journal reports, NBC averaged nearly 28 million viewers for each of the first nine nights of Olympic broadcasts. That's a staggering number on its own, but it's still 15.5 percent down from viewership in 2012, and even farther behind the average from the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.
If you're going to blame anyone, blame millennials: The 18-to-34 audience has declined by 30 percent for these Olympics in Rio, and NBC is rightfully worried about the trend. While cable subscriptions in general have declined in recent years, millennial embrace of the Olympics has plummeted.
The Olympics increasingly seem to cater best to the interests of older generations. During the past few Games, the average viewer age has ranged from the high-40s to the low-50s. Declining millennial interest is inching that number higher.
Millennials are quicker to cut the cord on cable than other generations, but that doesn't entirely explain their lagging interest. After all, even when you add in the 2 million viewers who watch the Olympics online every night, the viewership still isn't reaching London's levels from four years ago.
The Olympic Games have made several attempts to get hip to the young crowd. Bringing in Ryan Seacrest for late-night coverage was seen as a move to appeal to a younger demographic, and even additions like skateboarding to the Olympics were geared more toward millennials than older fans. And still, millennials aren't tuning in.
So what gives, and what does it mean for the Olympics?
For one thing, lagging interest is a product of increased competition. With millennials occupied by more streams of media than any other demographic, they simply have less time to spend on any particular channel.
Social media offers a variety of distractions: Imagine the Olympics battling for millennial attentions with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, among other platforms. It's easy to see how millennials are too busy to pull up Olympics on the boob tube.
NBC tried to counter this by diving deep into social media influence: Seacrest's nightly broadcasts feature social media coverage from the day, and NBC also invested heavily into social media influencers who could help promote the Olympic Games to a younger audience.
Consider even comedian Leslie Jones' surprise trip to Rio, earned through her engaging social media live-tweeting. Jones is a hit with younger audiences; bringing her to Rio was an easy way to increase engagement among millennials back home.
According to Variety, NBC has dropped roughly $100 million on marketing its Olympic Games broadcasts. Despite that spending, its losing millennial audiences faster than ever before.
The question, of course, is how to fix it.
For starters, NBC and the Olympics might consider dispensing with its archaic primetime broadcasts -- or, at least, opening up new media consumption options that are more flexible for millennials and meet younger audiences where they're at.
NBC's livestreams online have been popular, but the network may want to consider emerging forms of video streaming, such as partnerships with Twitter and Snapchat, to make Olympics broadcasts more accessible while also supporting a better multi-screen experience.
In fairness, such partnerships are still in their infancy, and by the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, experimental partnerships with other professional sports leagues will give Olympic officials a better sense of how social media can be used to deliver broadcasts.
Then there's the issue of its packaged primetime broadcasts, which frustrate many younger viewers who find out the results beforehand, or simply don't care to hold their suspense until the wee hours of the night. This is a strategy that simply can't survive with the times.
As the American public and the world population consume media through an ever-increasing number of channels, the suspense of a tape-delayed primetime broadcast will dissolve to near-nothing. Instead, NBC should do a better job of promoting live events as they're happening, while also providing an alternative tape-delayed package where fans can watch broadcasts in the evening.
Of course, all of these changes may overlook a more fundamental truth that the Olympic Games might not be able to fix. The media landscape is packed, and competitive for consumer attention is fierce. The Olympics is a revenue-generating titan that relies on a massive, plugged-in audience to generate its mammoth earnings.
But as the American culture becomes more and more fractured by competing interests, even something as large as the Olympic Games might have to rethink its strategy. Millennials aren't making some brave stand against cable or blazing a promising new path for the future of media: They're just reacting to what's been made available to them.
And as the options proliferate, missing out on the Olympic Games just doesn't seem like that big of a deal.