Olympic ratings are dropping faster than the Redskins' Super Bowl hopes. While NBC never expected to reach levels attained by the '96 Atlanta Games, it had announced very publicly that a 17.5 number was what they expected and sold $900 million worth of advertising based on that projection.
Now, six days into the competition, it's obvious they won't come close. While NBC is still winning every night of prime time against the other networks, the Olympic number through Wednesday night's telecast has been an average rating of 14.6. That's down by 36 percent from '96 (22.8 rating) and 20 percent from the '92 Games in Barcelona (18.3 rating), the event the network expected Sydney to match or slightly surpass. Let us count the explanations for this precipitous drop, one that could lead to the lowest-rated Summer Games in history.
* The time difference. Because of the 15-hour time difference between Sydney and the East Coast of America, the Games are shown entirely on tape. Long before NBC comes on in prime time in America, the results have been out there for hours, almost a full day, and are readily available on the radio, other TV outlets and the Internet. Even NBC's "Today" show at 7 a.m. is giving results, sort of scooping the prime-time show. In '96, much of the action was aired live. Even in Barcelona, with the Internet in its infancy, a five-hour time difference left many viewers unaware of final outcomes. Now everyone who wants to know the score has easy access, making prime time no longer must-see TV. NBC gears prime time to casual fans, families and women, but for a really big ratings number the network needs rip-snorting sports fans, too, and not enough are watching.
* The time of year. The Games are being contested in late September, the Australian spring, as opposed to July because winter Down Under is too cold. That means the Olympics are going head to head here with the NFL, college football and the so-called pennant races. "Monday Night Football" this week did a 13.2 rating; the Olympics barely beat it at 13.8. In Washington, the football game drew a 35.8 rating, the Olympics an 11.8. Children are back in school and presumably are not allowed to stay up late to watch. People who may have been vacationing in July have returned to work and are turning in earlier to prepare for the morning commute. In the summertime, the Olympics dominated the sports scene. Now they share it and that's not good.
* No athlete buzz, especially American athletes. The U.S. women's gymnastics team finished fourth, and none of the team members is considered a favorite for an individual medal. No U.S. swimmer is making like Mark Spitz, with gobs of individual medals and the promise of more to come. The Dream Team has become a yawn, and the really good women's soccer, softball and basketball teams are shown primarily on MSNBC. No one has tried to whack a competitor's kneecap before or during the Games. No one has emerged to capture our attention, and if one does, we already know whether they won, so why tune in?
* There's no one to hate. The Cold War is long over. U.S. vs. Russia in anything no longer is particularly compelling, unlike the days of Freedom's Heroes going against the Godless Commies. How do you root against Cuba when you know half the team would prefer to be living in south Florida? The Aussies have fielded a formidable team with a particularly heated rivalry at the pool, but NBC has made Australian teenager Ian Thorpe so warm and cuddly in its features and godded up Susie O'Neill--Madame Butterfly--so much that what's not to love?
* The endless storytelling. Of course, these athletes all have magnificent stories, but virtually every NBC feature seems to contain the element of death, divorce, illness or some other family or personal catastrophe. After a while, it gets a little old and with so many other viewing choices available with clicker in hand, it's easy to surf elsewhere--to a live baseball game or even, heaven forbid, "Survivor" reruns--and not come back.
* The lingering scent of scandal: The widely publicized Salt Lake City revelations on bribery of IOC officials to secure the bid for the 2002 Winter Games may well have turned off some viewers, even if NBC cites polls and focus groups that say it's not the case.
* There's no Tiger Woods. They tried to get Olympic golf for the '96 Games, to be contested at Augusta National until the club said no, thank you. They should have tried again because people will watch Tiger do anything. How about Olympic ball-on-club juggling? Marion Jones's quest for five golds starting next week in track and field could build interest, but the sport is hardly a ratings magnet. If ever an Olympics and a network was desperate for a Woods-like savior, it's Sydney 2000 and NBC.
Meantime, the sweetest Olympic piece of the week so far was provided by NBC's Jimmy Roberts during a "GM Moment" on Tuesday night. He told the story of Eric Moussambani, a swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, who took up the sport eight months ago and found himself swimming solo in an early 100-meter freestyle heat when two other swimmers were disqualified for jumping the gun.
The IOC has eased qualifying requirements in some events in order to attract more nations and Moussambani got into the event even though he never had swum in a 50-meter pool until he arrived in Sydney. NBC showed his struggle just to finish the race, including underwater shots of him barely moving forward, but Roberts did a splendid job of avoiding any mockery by focusing instead on an athlete who clearly epitomized the Olympic spirit and was warmly applauded by the crowd for his effort.