What if the medalists sang?


The big ratings news this week has been American Idol's victory over the Olympics.

Randy, Paula and Simon and the creme de la karaoke led Fox to overall prime-time victories on Tuesday and Wednesday, the first time NBC had lost any nights since the Olympics began Friday.

During prime time Tuesday, Fox drew a 13.5 rating - measuring the percentage of the nation's 110.2 million television households - to NBC's 11.3. On Wednesday night, according to ratings reported at Zap2it.com, Fox got an overall 11.9 to NBC's 10.9. Through six nights, NBC is averaging 12.5 on the Olympics. Four years ago, the network's prime-time coverage of the Salt Lake City Games averaged a 19.2 rating.

NBC has promised advertisers that Turin will come in at a 12 to 14 mark. If not, the network will have to pay them back with commercials on the house.

So, is there a problem with NBC's coverage?

Whatever the ratings issues are - and it might take a Super Bowl to stand up to the Idol juggernaut - it seems hard to lay the blame on NBC's presentation.

Sports fans would argue that the coverage needs to go more competition-heavy and less - to use the old ABC phrase - up close and personal. But that's not going to drive up the numbers. I mean, how many people are clamoring for more prime-time luge?

Last week, NBC host Jim Lampley noted how Winter Olympics viewers get their interest piqued "inside-out" - that is, a focus on the individual can grow into a curiosity about the sport. So maybe you find out something first about Tony Benshoof and then you watch the luge.

The six-hour difference between Turin and U.S. Eastern time means events don't unfold in the natural order of sports. When Ted Ligety came out of nowhere for his gold medal in the alpine combined, NBC made sure we weren't taken completely unawares. Before Ligety's final run, we got a featurette on who this guy is.

In normal, real-time coverage, we'd get the surprising victor, then the scramble afterward to introduce his story to everyone - sometimes maybe not until the next day.

Would that make for better ratings?

Consider how the mighty Idol presents its competitors. Don't we get the same kind of up-close looks at the would-be stars that NBC presents for Olympic athletes? So would you argue that if Idol just gave us more singing and the hip/empathetic/acerbic comments that follow - minus the humanizing features - the show's ratings would soar?

Seems to me that Idol is doing just fine. So if the Olympics aren't, let's not blame it on the fact that you didn't get to see the second skeleton slider from the Czech Republic.

Icy response

Bryant Gumbel, host of HBO's Real Sports, apparently won't be doing much to help the ratings for the Turin Olympics.

On his show recently, Gumbel said of the Winter Olympics: "Try not to laugh when someone says these are the world's greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the Games look like a GOP convention.

"And try to blot out all logic when announcers and sportswriters pretend to care about the luge, the skeleton, the biathlon and all those other events they don't understand and totally ignore for all but three weeks every four years. Face it: These Olympics are little more than a marketing plan."

Green flag

Sunday marks NBC's last Daytona 500 before NASCAR's eight-year deal with Fox, ABC, ESPN and TNT begins next year. Coverage begins with a one-hour pre-race show at 1:30 p.m. (WBAL/Channel 11 and WRC/Channel 4).

During a teleconference Wednesday, race analyst Wally Dallenbach (pick your favorite NASCAR metaphor) traded paint with, bump drafted or T-boned one of his compatriots.

Asked about how just-retired Rusty Wallace would fare as a commentator for ABC and ESPN, Dallenbach responded with an apparent reference to Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip: "Rusty's going to be fine, as long as Rusty calls what he's seeing. We don't need any more grandstanding and talking about themselves in the booth. As long as the guy calls the race, and gives the guys that are on the racetrack the coverage and not himself, he'll do great."


Read Ray Frager's blog at baltimoresun.com/mediumwell

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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