The TV Column: NBC's Winter Olympic coverage breaks 'American Idol's ratings streak

By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, February 19, 2010

By creating the Perfect Olympic Storm in prime time, mired-in-fourth-place NBC finally and spectacularly broke "American Idol's" nearly six-year winning streak.

In the course of what NBC modestly called "the greatest single day in Winter Olympics history" (because the United States captured six medals) the network averaged 29.4 million prime-time viewers.

But when it went mano a mano with Fox's singing competition series Wednesday between 9 and 10 p.m., NBC's Vancouver Games broadcast averaged 30.1 million viewers. "Idol," meanwhile, "only" mustered 18.6 million devoted fans, who stuck with it just so they could be the first to learn the identities of the remaining 17 utterly unknown semifinalists. That's "Idol's" smallest audience since April 16, 2003.

More important, it's the first time "Idol" has been defeated in its time slot since May 17, 2004.

"I talk about the great success of MSNBC -- all our cable networks. What we also see is that broadcasting still works. The pipes still work," NBC Universal president and chief executive Jeff Zucker told his employee Joe Scarborough on Thursday morning on MSNBC's program "Morning Joe" in re the Games' "Idol" defeat.

"You put on compelling programs and the people want to watch, and the people are there," said the man who decided to program NBC, the company's broadcast network, to margins rather than viewers -- resulting in "The Jay Leno Show" prime-time weeknight debacle between September and February that kept NBC stuck in fourth place.

Washington contributed about three quarters of a million viewers to the Games' overall 30-million-ish viewers Wednesday night.

To accomplish its "Idol"-record-smashing feat, NBC made viewers wait until prime time, which starts at 8 o'clock in Washington, to watch Lindsey Vonn's 3 p.m.-ish (EST) dramatic gold medal-winning women's downhill run -- the first time an American competitor has scored the gold in this race.

Vonn's emotional win -- tastefully packaged with a selection of the most spectacular wipeouts by some of her competitors as well as the silver medal-winning run of fellow American Julia Mancuso -- was part of a prime-time lineup that included some of the United States biggest Games guns in years.

Joining Vonn in prime time: Snowboarder Shaun White's easy gold medal win in the men's halfpipe, and Shani Davis's second consecutive men's 1,000-meter speedskating gold.

Against that kind of flag-waving, feel-good drama, Wednesday's "Idol" wilted like a lily-of-the-valley under a heat lamp.

No one got to sing. The competitors spent the hour wringing their hands -- some also prayed -- in a drab holding room, waiting for show host Ryan Seacrest to usher them, one at a time, into the presence of the "Idol" judges, who batted around each wannabe Idolette for a while before letting him or her know if they'd made the cut. Then the ritual started all over again the with next competitor.

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