With Olympic ratings off, NBC deals with competitive reality


There is no place in American culture where reality and perception butt heads more frequently than in television, as NBC is being painfully reminded during the Olympics.

The reality is that the network's Olympic telecasts are fine pieces of television, even with all the hearts and flowers features that mar prime time. They are largely dominating their time slots against their broadcast competition, which is reruns.

Ah, but the perception through the first week of the Games is that massive numbers of Americans, for a variety of reasons, are hardly interested in the goings-on in Sydney and are tuning out NBC's presentation.

For once, there is an element of truth to the perception, as the cold, hard Nielsen ratings are down from the Games four years ago in Atlanta, a fact that should surprise no one. After all, those Olympics were in the United States, and interest and viewership in the host nation is always highest.

The ratings are also off compared to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and the 1988 Games in Seoul. But even that can be explained away by the notion that there are many more things to watch now than then.

What is most troubling to NBC is that the Nielsen average to date, a 14.6 prime-time rating through Wednesday, is down 9 percent from the 16.1 that the network promised to advertisers. NBC already has begun to provide "make-goods" or free spots, which could continue through its coverage of the baseball playoffs next month.

And the falloff could be felt down the line. If the hemorrhage continues, NBC could be forced to lay off personnel, and the network's efforts to sell time for the Summer Games of 2004 and 2008 could be impacted. There should be little effect on sales for the 2002 Winter Olympics, because they'll be staged in Salt Lake City, and viewer interest should peak here.

Locally, Bill Fine, general manager of Channel 11, Baltimore's NBC affiliate, said the station held back some commercial inventory in planning for the Games. While the larger advertisers will get some compensatory advertising next week, Fine said, viewers likely won't notice the difference.

"There will not be a single advertiser that will not be happy with what we've done," said Fine, adding that the station's average surpasses what NBC is delivering.

The culprit that most media is seizing on for the seeming disinterest in the Olympics is NBC's decision to show all of the Games on tape, given that Sydney's time zone is 15 hours ahead of the American East Coast and 18 hours ahead of the West Coast.

With various news agencies reporting Games results ahead of NBC's coverage, not to mention the explosion of Internet sites, many providing results in real time, the theory expounded by many newspapers is that people won't watch events for which they already know results.

There's certainly an element of truth to that. But in NBC's defense, showing these Olympics live would mean the network committing corporate suicide, given the time difference and the exclusivity that it has been granted by the International Olympic Committee.

What would NBC's advertisers say if a defining moment of the Games, say Marion Jones' 100-meter dash final, were seen on every local newscast around the country, not to mention outlets such as CNN and ESPN, before the network could show it in prime time, because it aired the race live in the middle of the night to appease its critics?

It's also true that the Games, with a mid-September placement dictated in deference to the Aussie weather, are at a time when other things cram the American sports calendar.

With baseball pennant races heading for home and the football season beginning, the Olympics are facing unprecedented competition for the American sports fans' attention, perhaps at a level that NBC didn't anticipate when it bid for these Games five years ago.

NBC is not blameless in this. The network is undoubtedly paying a price for its arrogance in Atlanta, where it passed off taped coverage as live and growled at anyone who pointed it out.

Likewise, the network continues to hew to the well-worn formula of "story-telling" to televise the Olympics, supposedly to bring more women to the table. If the ratings drop-off gets NBC to give viewers something more palatable, then it's not such a bad thing.

But, as the Olympics head for their second week, the battle between reality and perception is on, at stakes dramatically higher than who swims in a pool faster, or who throws the javelin farthest.

Around the dial

In this week's example of "follow the leader," all of the NFL pre-game shows will have some feature on Sunday's Jets-Buccaneers game (Channel 13, approximately 4:15 p.m.), most centering on loudmouth Keyshawn Johnson, the former Jets receiver turned Tampa Bay wide-out.

On the college football pre-game front, both ESPN's "College GameDay" (11 a.m. Saturday) and CNN's "College Football Preview" (11:30 a.m. Saturday) will have stories on South Carolina's startling turnaround. The shows also will cover the early-season woes of Penn State, an interesting lead-in to ABC's national coverage of the Nittany Lions' game with Ohio State (Channel 2, noon).

Week's ratings

The ratings for the top 10 most watched sporting events on broadcast television in Baltmore from Sept. 14-20. (R-Rating; S-Share):

Event Day Ch. R/S

Olympics Fri. 11 19.6/36

Olympics Tue. 11 17.3/29

Olympics Sun. 11 16.1/25

Olympics Mon. 11 14.6/25

Olympics Wed. 11 14.5/25

Olympics Sat. 11 13.9/25

Ravens-Dolphins Sun. 2 11.3/17

Cowboys-'Skins Mon. 2 10.5/19

Olympics (day) Sat. 11 9.5/24

Ravens-Dolphins Sun. * 8.8/13

*-ESPN Note: Each rating point equals 9,992 homes in the Baltimore area

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