- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

As the U.S. Olympic team has slipped, slid and showboated its way to disappointing results at the 2006 Winter Games, NBC is recording some of the lowest ratings in the event’s history.

“There is, in general, a lack of interest from viewers toward these Games,” said John Spiropoulos, vice president with Mediavest, a media and marketing firm in New York. “There just aren’t strong story lines from these athletes. Nothing’s really broken through.”

Through last week, NBC averaged a 12.2 rating, representing about 20 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. That’s down about half from the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City and about 25 percent from the 1998 Games in Nagano.

According to one media analyst, NBC has started selling local advertising for the first half-hour of the broadcast as a way of avoiding national Nielsen ratings during that time.

“Are the Olympics off a bit? Yeah,” said Dick Ebersol, Chairman of NBC Universal Sports and Olympics. “But they are not off one iota from all the other major sports events and certainly not from the major glamour events like the Oscars and Grammys.”

Ebersol said only a comparison to the 1998 Games in Nagano makes sense, because the 2002 Games were held in the U.S. and the 1994 Games in Lillehammer had huge ratings driven by a scandal involving figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.

NBC said the total numbers of viewers of the Games is just 2 percent off the pace of the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. However, NBC and its cable networks are offering a record 418 hours of coverage, giving people more chances to watch than ever before.

Analysts said it’s hard to know precisely why ratings are down from previous Olympics. Some say it’s because NBC is the fourth-rated network, unlike in past years when competing networks had little to offer as competition.

In its opening week, the Olympics lost the ratings battle with episodes of “American Idol,” “CSI,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives.”

“The Winter Olympics sitting in February, in the middle of sweeps, have never really faced any competition,” Ebersol said. “This time, uniquely, our competitors have very, very, very strong programming.”

Some analysts blame the shaky showing of the U.S. athletes so far, but others dispute that notion.

“There are probably some people who are disappointed with the performances, but it’s a stretch to say that because Bode Miller didn’t win a gold medal in skiing, people aren’t going to watch figure skating,” said Neil Pilson, an independent sports business consultant and former executive with CBS Sports. “There’s no logic to that.”

Ebersol said viewers understand the Winter Olympics don’t always go as planned.

“The Winter Olympics have always had an enormous amount of unpredictability,” he said. “You’re dealing with ice and snow here. People fall down, they get disqualified, they crash, et cetera.”

Another possible culprit for the low ratings: the Internet. NBC’s Olympic Web site has garnered nearly 200 million hits, luring fans with a smorgasbord of live event results and more than 67,000 hours of video. With so much free content available round-the-clock, viewers may not be as inclined to watch tape-delayed broadcasts in prime time.

“I would concede that could be a disincentive to watch [on television],” Pilson said.

NBC, however, is not complaining about ratings.

Ebersol said the network still plans to make nearly $75 million off the Games, and disputed reports that NBC would be forced to offer free advertising to sponsors to compensate for the low ratings.

The network is still expected to be the top-rated network for most, if not all, of February. And NBC executives said viewers were spilling over to watch other programming. They credited the Olympics for helping drive record viewership for the Daytona 500, and ratings for news programs on MSNBC and CNBC have nearly doubled.

And ratings for the Games on NBC are likely to improve. Last night’s broadcast of the women’s figure skating short program was expected to garner strong U.S. viewers, along with the showdown between speedskating rivals Chad Hedrick and Shani Davis. NBC expects the women’s long program tomorrow night to score the highest ratings of the Games.

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