SPORTS BIZ: NBC’s ratings are high so far

From NBC’s perspective, the Beijing Olympics have gotten off to a start most sprinters would envy.

Helped along by some exhilarating action in swimming and gymnastics, the network has seen unusually high television ratings so far, with millions of fans viewing live events online.

NBC averaged a 17.0 rating through Sunday, the best for a non-U.S. Olympics since 1976. Through the first three days, total viewership of the games was above 143 million, up from 126 million for the Athens Games.

It appears NBC has gotten this Olympics thing down pat. For one thing, the network has dispensed with many of the sepia-toned features that plagued broadcasts of Olympics past. The features they do show are short and generally additive to the broadcasts, and there is a strong emphasis on actual event coverage, helped along by a horde of cable networks and a robust Web site.

With more than 2,200 hours of live events on NBC’s Olympics Web site, it’s easy to assume traditional television ratings would suffer. But there appears to be no cannibalization, as television ratings have remained strong.

Much of that can be attributed to swimmer Michael Phelps, whose pursuit of a record eight gold medals has been the story of the games. NBC did well to mesh Phelps’ second gold medal race - the marvelous 4x100 meter relay final - with a live interview with President Bush. During that half hour, the network averaged 38.4 million viewers.

NBC will pull in more than $1 billion in advertising from these Olympics and no doubt will see a bump in ratings for its other programming throughout the year.

There have been a few cringe-worthy moments. On Saturday, viewers saw an entire live interview segment with former women’s gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, with neither Karolyi nor host Bob Costas properly microphoned. Costas, in his usual self-deprecating style, handled the situation about as well as anyone could expect.

Segments with Cris Collinsworth, one of NBC’s top football analysts, felt a little out of place, and at one point Saturday, Costas even asked, “Cris, what are you doing here?” The host meant it in the most benign way possible, but it is valid to wonder why a former NFL receiver was narrating feature stories when NBC has a roster of actual journalists on staff.

Collinsworth’s feature on swimmer Dara Torres showed he’s a capable interviewer, but it’s worth wondering why the task couldn’t have been handled by a veteran reporter like Andrea Kremer or Melissa Stark. Furthermore, Collinsworth did himself no favors Monday night when he could be seen cheering and hugging Phelps’ mother during the swimmer’s 200-meter freestyle victory.

Some have criticized NBC for showing the opening ceremonies on tape delay in prime time, but the network made the right call. While it’s true that some viewers already might have read descriptions of the ceremonies before they aired, there was no suspense ruined and no excitement spoiled.

Anyone who declined to tune in because they “already read about it” missed out on arguably the most exhilarating spectacle ever on television. Live or not, it was phenomenal, and it was an appropriate start to a games that has been full of excitement.

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