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Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and IOC President Thomas Bach sign TV rights deal in 2014

Brands Excited About Olympics; Viewers A Bit Less So

Here’s the good news for Comcast as its NBCUniversal unit prepares this week to broadcast the 2020 Tokyo Olympics: a majority of Americans say they’re interested in watching what NBCU is putting on, even if it’s a year late thanks to the pandemic. Also, the company is projected to rake in a boatload of cash, a record $2.25 billion in U.S. ad revenues tied to the games.

That’s all from a new Kantar Media study that suggests several reasons why Comcast should feel good about finally getting the games up and out, even a year behind schedule thanks to the pandemic. Given that Comcast is contracted to broadcast Olympics winter and summer through 2032, and its advertisers again are betting heavily on getting a golden glow from their substantial investments, that’s particularly good news.

It’s all happening amid a broader resurgence for ad revenues across linear TV, according to iSpot.TV. All told, linear TV ad revenues jumped 9 percent in the first half of 2021, to an estimated $21.4 billion, iSpot said. The jump is a bit of a surprise but a welcome one, given the absence of political ads like those that plumped up local cable and broadcast revenues in 2020.

It’s likely that a good chunk of that largesse trickled down to Comcast, which has 16 broadcast, cable and digital video networks (and whose CEO Brian Roberts is reportedly pondering acquisitions such as Roku or ViacomCBS to get bigger still).

Comcast also used last week, on the one-year anniversary Friday of Peacock’s wide launch, to announce that the streaming service had secured a whopping $500 million in advertising commitments for next year, all as part of NBCU’s now-closed Upfront ad-sales season.

The company was noticeably more reticent about detailing such numbers for the rest of its operations, but said they too “delivered double-digit percent increases” in both volume and pricing. Given the collapse in advertising and viewership last spring and summer for traditional “TV” outlets, anything less would be an embarrassing comp. But a win is a win, and Comcast was happy to brag about it, however vaguely and carefully.

Peacock, which last year was supposed to feature 1,000 hours of exclusive Olympics programming just days after its launch, now gets a do-over. Once again, Comcast will be hoping that Peacock can pick up new users and new visibility, especially after a desultory launch burdened by pandemic-forced delays of not just the Olympics but many other planned originals.

All that said, the Olympics that begin Friday will be a complicated one, despite Kantar’s optimistic projections.

For one thing, even the Kantar study contains some reasons for concern. While more than 60 percent of those surveyed told Kantar they were interested in watching the Olympics broadcast, more than half the respondents said they “still believe the games should be postponed further, or cancelled altogether.” That suggests even many viewers may be less than enthusiastic about regularly tuning in.

Also, it’s a good thing so many people say they will watch, because they won’t be able to actually go to the games in person, after a resurgence of Covid-19 in Tokyo forced Olympic organizers to ban fan attendance from most competitions.

Indeed, more than two dozen of the 20,000 athletes and behind-the-scenes personnel descending on Tokyo have already tested positive or been exposed and gone into quarantine protocols. That includes members of the USA men’s and women’s basketball teams and women’s gymnastics team. With days to go even before the opening ceremonies, still more are likely to lose the chance to compete thanks to Covid-19 exposures.

The lack of fans likely will diminish some piece of the experience even for far-distant viewers too. They also will have to contend with the time-zone disconnect that happens every time the IOC puts the games in a city on the opposite side of the planet. Particularly in the era of social media, few results, highlights, or back stories are likely to be surprises half a day later. It’ll be up to NBCU to figure out other ways to make these problematic games more compelling.

It’s also worth noting that the iSpot study found some reasons for concern among those big linear ad revenue numbers. Turns out impressions for all those ads were down 6.1 percent, a trend that suggests it may be difficult to continue extracting record revenues from linear TV for years to come.

Comcast has another 11 years to go on its big Olympics bet. That deal looked like a sure gold-medal winner when it was signed back in 2014. Whether it looks that good in, say, 2030, will be something to watch as American viewing habits continue to rapidly evolve. But for now, Peacock and NBCU and Comcast should grab as many medals as they can, while they can. This competition is about to get a lot rougher.