Television's age of lowered ratings expectations has come to the Winter Olympics.
Through the first six nights of NBC's Winter Olympics coverage in Pyeongchang, South Korea, prime-time coverage is being watched by an average of 23.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen data, down 6% from the same point in 2014 when the event was held in Sochi, Russia.
The total includes cable and digital audiences that were not counted in the network's average in 2014, meaning the drop in viewership might have been steeper if those numbers were taken out. The additional platforms add around 2 million viewers to the 2018 total.
Still, NBC executives weren't in a panic. Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Broadcasting and Sports, said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters that the prime-time audience delivered so far is ahead of what it promised to advertisers.
Mindful of how the proliferation of television viewing options has diminished TV ratings across the board, the network guaranteed an audience for Pyeongchang that is smaller than what it promised in 2014.
The Pyeongchang number includes people watching the Games on NBC, the NBC Sports Network on cable, and streaming video apps. Lazarus said 90% of the time sold is for commercials that air across all three platforms.
Although Lazarus did not specify what the guaranteed audience is, he acknowledged that NBC anticipated a decline from 2014. Even with a smaller audience, the network said it sold $900 million in commercial time, a record for a Winter Olympics.
By meeting or exceeding its ratings targets for advertisers on the few nights, Lazarus said the network can take the unsold commercial inventory it reserved in the event of audience shortfalls and sell it to advertisers who are interested in a last-minute buy for the remainder of the Games, which run through Feb. 25.
Lazarus said the network is seeing a massive increase in streaming of the Games, through digital devices and internet-connected televisions. Viewers have watched more Olympic coverage on digital devices in the first five days of the Pyeongchang Games than in the entire Sochi Games.
The network has done research that found 60% of the Olympic audience is spending less time with streaming video services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu as a result of the time spent watching the competition.
Feb. 14, 2:40 p.m.: This article was updated with Winter Olympic ratings for Tuesday.