Ratings Aren't Winning NBC Any Medals

By Thomas Heath and John Maynard
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 17, 2006

The Turin Olympics are not quite half over but are on course to being one of the lowest-rated Winter Games ever, with nightly prime-time numbers that pale in comparison to those recorded during the Salt Lake City Olympics four years ago. NBC's goal of winning every hour of prime time over the course of the 17-day event is already out of reach.

The poor ratings are the result of several factors: the six-hour time difference between the East Coast and Turin, which means there are no live prime-time events; the dearth of marquee names on the U.S. team; and more robust competition from other networks, according to network officials and television sports analysts.

Bode Miller, the top American male Alpine skier, has so far been a bust -- placing fifth in the men's downhill and then being disqualified in the men's Alpine combined event. The most well-known U.S. athlete in Turin, figure skater Michelle Kwan, was forced to withdraw because of an injury.

And in a departure from recent practice, NBC's competitors in the United States have been broadcasting some of their most popular programs since the Olympics began instead of surrendering the prime-time battle. On Sunday night, ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" scored a higher audience from 10 to 11 p.m. than the Olympics. Both Tuesday and Wednesday's "American Idol," Fox's runaway hit show, trounced the Olympics from 8 to 9 p.m.

"The competitors saw a vulnerable Games and are programming against it deliberately," said Paul Swangard, managing director at the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

The first six nights of prime-time Olympics coverage on NBC have averaged 21 million viewers, down significantly from the 32.7 million who watched the first six nights in 2002. The Tuesday and Wednesday prime-time telecasts, which garnered audiences of 18.6 and 17.2 million respectively, became the two least-watched nights of Winter Olympics competition since at least 1988.

Officials from NBC and its parent company, General Electric, which paid $613 million for the broadcast rights for Turin, say they are not disappointed.

"The Olympics remain one of the biggest events on television," Randy Falco, president and chief operating officer of GE's Universal Television Group, said in a statement this week. "Despite this being the most competitive quarter I've seen in my 30 years in the television business, the Olympics continues to perform as they have throughout the past decade, compared to the current network television landscape."

All of sports television, from "Monday Night Football" to the NBA Finals, has been under siege in recent years, thanks to a number of factors including growing cable and satellite broadcasting, which puts hundreds of channels at viewers' fingertips, and evolving technology that enables fans to watch games live on their computers, cell phones or other devices.

"The business has changed dramatically," said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports who represented the International Olympic Committee in negotiations with NBC for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games and the 2012 London Summer Games. "Everyone would love to do better, but TV is much more fragmented than it was eight years ago. All networks are doing much lower numbers."

But NBC is failing to conquer the younger audience despite its promotion of new Olympic sports like snowboarding and freestyle skiing. In three of the first six nights of prime-time coverage, NBC has placed second among 18- to 49-year-olds, the demographic that advertisers crave. On Wednesday, both "American Idol" and ABC's "Lost" beat the Olympics when it came to the younger crowd.

David Carter of the Sports Business Group, a Los Angeles sports marketing firm, said the young males who follow extreme sports may not be watching in prime time.

"If the 'American Idol' viewer is young and is that coveted young male, those people are more inclined to learn the results already as opposed to the older demographic, who wait to watch at night in prime time," Carter said.

NBC's Winter Olympics media guide said that the network is "not in the business of making ratings predictions." However, the guide predicted the network "will win virtually every hour in prime time for 17 days."

Though NBC may not be making good on its guarantee to win every hour of prime time, network officials said the ratings are within their range of expectations and that their sponsors are satisfied. The network is betting that the forthcoming women's figure skating, which is the most popular television event in the Winter Olympics, will bring a round of ratings good news and establish some new sports stars.

"Stars are always created at the Olympics," said NBC spokeswoman Alana Russo. "Going into the Olympics, you never know what is going to happen. It's the ultimate reality show."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company