Recalling The Ghost Of Nagano

NBC’s Tokyo Olympics are shaping up to be an echo of the 1998 Nagano disaster at CBS, but aberrations aside, the Games will remain sports’ gold standard.

Hank Price

Seeing the excitement of all three spectators at the Tokyo Olympics, with its canned cheers and recorded applause, one cannot help but think back to the last time Japan hosted the games. You remember those games, the ones never mentioned in polite Olympics company. Dare I say it here? Nagano.

The 1998 Nagano Olympics on CBS are remembered as the greatest ratings disaster in the modern game’s history. Of course, those games were in the winter, which was the first strike. They were also inaccessible, high in the central mountains; a beautiful area few outside of Japan had heard of.

The second strike was that the print press, still a factor in those days, kept emphasizing the unfortunate fact all events would be recorded. The 1996 Summer Olympics, live from Atlanta on NBC, had been an overwhelming success, setting huge viewing records, so expectations were artificially high.

The third strike was that CBS simply did not know how to do an Olympics. Roone Arledge may have created Olympics television coverage, but these days NBC is the recognized expert. I doubt any other organization could match NBC’s expertise on a one-off basis.

To give you a sense of just how great the Nagano disaster was, I was running the CBS O&O in Chicago at the time. We ended up owing American Airlines almost $1 million in credits. It took two years of being shut out from American buys before the bleeding stopped.


Of course, you can’t simply compare television ratings from past Olympics to today’s world of app-based multiple streams and replays. One sports columnist this past weekend, complaining that Sunday morning basketball was not on free TV, spoke for many when he asked: “What the heck is Peacock?” As NBC’s precarious gamble to build an OTT service at the expense of affiliates continues full steam, one can’t help wondering what the future mix of Olympic platforms will look like.

You are probably thinking by this time that I’m not a fan of Tokyo 2020. I am. Viewership is, of course, down, but everyone expected that. Football survived canned crowd noises and empty seats; the Olympics will, too.

My point is simply this: Olympics viewership, no matter the platform, has always depended on location and time zone. This year’s games will go down as an aberration due to bizarre factors no one could have predicted, including a 12-month delay. Whatever the final numbers turn out to be, remember one thing: For every Nagano, there is an Atlanta, a London and a Rio waiting down the road.

Like the Super Bowl, the Olympics continue to be the gold standard.

Hank Price is a media consultant and leadership coach. He is the author of Leading Local Television, a guide to leadership for television general managers, as well as those who aspire to top leadership. Price spent 30 years managing TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago and KARE Minneapolis, as well as three other stations. Earlier, he was a consultant for Frank N. Magid Associates. Price also served as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center and is currently director of leadership development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss. He is the author of two other books.


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tvn-member-3011604 says:

July 27, 2021 at 12:29 pm

These Olympics have hit a 33-year low in terms of viewership. NBC, the “woke-ist” of the woke networks, has a real sports event lemon on its hands. A dud. Olympian Lolo Jones hit the nail on the head when she made the point that mixing Olympic sport with political activism is a turn-off for viewers and even Olympic enthusiasts. This is a fact that the Olympic Committee, the networks, the mainstream media, the coaches and ultimately the athletes themselves need to understand. If an Olympic contender is out there representing a country, he/she needs to do it with pride and respect.