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  CBS Draws Ratings of Olympian Dimensions

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 1994; Page D13

So just exactly who has watched the Winter Olympics on television?


Certainly, the ratings ballyhooed with unrestrained jubilation by CBS every day of these Winter Games from Lillehammer, Norway, have been unprecedented since the torch was lit on Feb. 12. Through Friday, CBS was up 47 percent in viewing levels from the '92 Games in Albertville, France. The network also has posted the two single highest nightly ratings in Olympic history, summer or winter.

Two nights this week -- featuring women's figure skating Wednesday and Friday with the denouement of the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding story -- resulted in ratings rarely seen in the wide world of sports, or any other television programming for that matter.

Wednesday night's short program had a 48.5 rating and 126.5 million viewers, the fourth-largest prime time audience in history. Friday night, when Kerrigan just missed the gold, produced a preliminary national rating of 43.9 and a 64 share, the second highest all-time Olympic number. CBS told advertisers it expected an 18.7 average rating; it is now averaging 28.6 for 14 nights. Each rating point represents 942,000 viewers.

Interviews with network and Olympic officials, advertising and marketing specialists and a representative from A.C. Nielsen, the ratings company, all produced a unanimous opinion. They all say this audience is so large, viewing levels can't really be broken down by age or sex or race, by upscale or downscale, college grads or high-school dropouts, city slickers or country folks.

It doesn't matter that most viewers couldn't tell a hockey skate from a speed skate, wouldn't know the biathlon from the Pentagon, couldn't know that a mogul is not necessarily a description of Jack Kent Cooke.

"When you see what we call 'Event Television' like this and the monster numbers it's getting, it's not just drawing from a typical sports audience of white males over 35 making more than $60,000 a year," said Jack Loftus, vice president for communications for Nielsen Media Research, the ratings company.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist or even a couch potato in the proper supine position to know that the ongoing saga of skaters Kerrigan and Harding has been the high-test fuel to launch CBS's numbers into the ionosphere during most of the past two weeks.

The skating showdowns on Wednesday and Friday were so anticipated, in fact, the people across the country gathered around their radios to catch CBS Radio's jump-by-jump broadcast.

"The switchboard was flooded all day with calls asking when it was going to be on. Hundreds of calls," said Andy Pollin, programming director for WTEM radio, which carried the broadcast. "There's never been anything comparable to the reaction we got from this event."

The spark for the ignition of all this hype began with the "Why me?" attack on Kerrigan in Detroit during the U.S. Olympic trials on Jan. 6, arranged by Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. From that day forward, the story -- did she know, didn't she know, will she skate, won't she skate -- has been front-page fodder nationwide and around the world, lead material on the network news, cover story stuff from publications such as Time and Newsweek to all the tawdry tabloids, both print and electronic.

"Just think about the amount of free publicity they {CBS} got from Kerrigan-Harding," said Art Kaminsky, a New York attorney who represents a number of broadcasters working the Games for CBS. "It's the same reason baseball attendance started to take off in the '70s after free agency came in. I've always argued that baseball's ability to generate free advertising for four or five months, which they never really had before in the offseason, translated into more people at the gate.

"This country works on advertising, that's why companies spend so much money on it. Now, with the figure skating, you're the lead or second story on the national news, totally dominating the tabloid shows that usually attract audiences who don't even watch the Olympics or sports. But here they are now, every night."

Even other athletes could appreciate the draw of the Harding-Kerrigan matchup.

"The ratings are great, and we're happy about that," said Dan Jansen, who provided CBS another great story line by winning his first-ever Olympic medal in speed skating. "Ironically, the situation with Nancy and Tonya had something to do with those ratings. For months before, people didn't even know the Olympics were coming. The incident {the attack on Kerrigan} was unfortunate but I'm afraid it had something to do with the ratings."

Who usually watches the Winter Olympics?

The CBS audience profile from Albertville in 1992 indicated it was 57 percent females over 18 in prime time, going slightly higher when figure skating was on the air. So far this year, the prime-time audience has been about 59 percent females over 18, according to Michael Eisenberg, vice president for audience measurement at CBS.

Early indications are that the '94 audience is showing an almost 50 percent increase in viewing by upscale, more educated viewers than '92.

One demographic that may not be drawing bodies to the Olympics is the under-18 category. That's indicated by a relatively small 10 to 15 percent drop in the prime-time ratings for the youth-oriented Fox Network over the past two weeks.

Cable ratings have been also down about 10 percent, meaning part of that widely skewed audience is coming to the Olympics to get their fix of news, sports and entertainment.

In general, according to network researchers, Summer Olympics are more popular among minority viewers than Winter Olympics, if only because there are so few minority athletes at Winter Games.

In Lillehammer, for example, the American team has only five black athletes -- a luger and four bobsledders -- among its 153 competitors. And while the U.S. Olympic Committee says it's always trying to get all of its teams more racially and ethnically diversified, it's easier said than done in winter sports than the more popular games of summer -- baseball, basketball and track and field, among others.

Most of the American athletes in Norway are between the ages of 24 and 27, and the demographics of the 102 men and 51 women are generally white, middle class with biographies that would make ESPN, soft drink companies and mountain bike store owners salivate. Their preferences run to pizza, hamburgers, cola and lemonade and they like to listen to Harry Connick Jr., Aerosmith and Phil Collins.

But many of their life stories and their athletic careers also are partly responsible for the fabulous television ratings. CBS, like NBC and ABC before it, is using its prime-time coverage to tell many of those stories, and some of even more obscure foreign athletes, the way ABC Sports Olympic pioneer Roone Arledge helped build so much interest in the '60s and '70s.

"The reason you get more women for the Olympics, the reason Barcelona worked so well for us, is the telling of all those stories," said Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports and an Arledge disciple who started his career as an ABC Olympic researcher.

"Women will come to the Olympics no matter what. They have an insatiable curiosity because they fall in love with the stories. Roone educated people to that with the 'up close and personal' look at the athletes. And when you have this {six-hour} time difference, it's just the right amount of time to put the polish on. These Games are a producer's delight."

And the intriguing tales have just kept on coming day after day, particularly for the American audience.

There was Dan Jansen, Tommy Moe, Bonnie Blair, Picabo Street, Brian Boitano and the come-from-behind hockey team to get people into the action. And on Wednesday night came Tonya and Nancy.

"There's just no question that the Olympics are great prime-time television," said Nick Schiavone, vice president of media and marketing research for NBC. "Go back to Aristotle. What did he say about great drama? It was plot and character. In any drama, we also know people are looking for story, good characters, actors and writing, and the Olympics are drama without the script. That's what's working here. ...

"Sure, Kerrigan and Harding were the initial draw. But you couldn't hold people night after night at the set without these other stories too."

It didn't even matter that many of the results were known by viewers from other sources much earlier in the day. People still came running to their televisions despite knowning the ending.

"With the dynamics of what happened in the skating the last few weeks, you still want to see the drama," said Doug Wilson, the award-winning producer/director who has handled figure skating for ABC Sports the past 30 years.

U.S. Olympic officials are obviously delighted with the way the entire story has turned out, even if the opening chapter began with an insidious blow to the knee felt 'round the world.

"It's exciting for a number of reasons," said LeRoy Walker, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "One thing it has done is that in spite of the unfortunate figure skating situation, it brought a new awareness of what the Winter Games are all about. It's developed a consciousness for all these other events.

"They tuned in but they couldn't just be interested in the figure skating. Moe and Jansen caught people's eyes, caused them to look at events that never even crossed their minds before. Before the Games, people kept asking me, 'Where the hell is Lillehammer?' They know now, don't they?"

Staff writers Jeanne McManus and Christine Brennan contributed to this report from Lillehammer.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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