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Olympians Might Not Be The Idols They Once Were

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The Olympic Games may not be the ratings juggernaut they once were, but NBC's demo delivery is up between 150 percent and 350 percent over regular programming during its telecasts of the 2006 Winter Games from Torino, Italy. A sizable portion of its new viewers has been drawn away from ad-supported cable.

A study by Mediaedge:cia comparing prime-time ratings for the first week of the Olympics versus the week ending Jan. 29, using Nielsen Media Research data, shows NBC increased its adults 18-49 rating by 150 percent, from a 2.2 to a 5.5, while ad-supported cable overall fell from a 17.1 to a 14.9, a decline of 13 percent. NBC's ratings among teens showed the highest percentage gain, soaring by 350 percent to a 3.6 from a 0.8.

The broadcast network losing the biggest share of adults 18-49 is CBS, down 20 percent during the Games. But, as reported in Mediaweek (Feb. 6), CBS is the only Big Four network to have chosen to air mostly repeats. Fox, whose powerhouse American Idol has outdrawn Olympic telecasts by a 3-to-1 margin, is still down 3 percent overall in the 18-49 demo compared to the last week in January. The network still plans to take on the Olympics' biggest draw, figure skating, with a Wednesday special edition of Idol.

Other than NBC, only ABC—whose Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy and Lost have all outrated the Olympics—is performing better during the games overall among adults 18-49 than in late January (up 22 percent to a 4.1).

NBC Sports executives, fed up with the media's focus on ratings declines in prime time compared to previous Winter Games, went on the offensive late last week with data to show that the event still holds great value to advertisers. "Everyone is comparing these games' ratings to the ratings from Nagano [the last Winter Games held outside the U.S.] in 1998," said Mike McCarley, NBC Sports vp of communications and marketing. (The current ratings are down about 25 percent across the board from Nagano.) "But the ratings of all major TV events are down significantly since then," he continued. "Compared to 1998, the World Series ratings in 2005 were down 21 percent, Monday Night Football was down 22 percent, the NBA finals were down 56 percent, the Academy Awards were down 27 percent and the Grammy Awards were down 32 percent."

The ratings drop in all major TV events, noted McCarley, has much to do with an explosion in viewing choices. "In 1998, the average home was receiving 57 channels, while today they are receiving 96 channels," he said. "More than one-third of the U.S. households have 158 channels. There is a behavior shift in how people consume media—they're watching more cable and using the Internet." McCarley noted that ratings on NBC's cable properties—which are carrying much of the 1,200 hours of coverage—are up, and that Web users have viewed more than 2.9 million video streams on the NBC Olympics Web site through last Thursday.

Over that same period, the Olympics have averaged a 13.3 in prime-time household ratings. NBC executives said their ratings guarantees fell between 12 and 14, depending on the client and spending levels, and they were not yet in any makegoods situations. But more than one media agency executive said some clients were guaranteed 15 ratings, so some makegoods may end up being handed out.

But by and large, a random survey of buyers showed they are not overly concerned with NBC's bronze-medal ratings performance.

"The Olympics are not what they once were," said Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer for Mediaedge:cia, "and the ratings on some nights may be lower than we expected. But for most of the advertisers who have made major investments in the Olympics, it goes beyond just prime-time ratings and TV spots. They are buying across platforms."

Other media agency execs with clients in the Games who did not want to speak for attribution agreed that many of those clients advertise because of corporate image. "Many Olympic advertisers are involved not only in the U.S. but also in the international marketplace, and it's important for them to project the image of being global players," said one.

Sam Armando, vp and director of TV research for Starcom, pointed to one possible reason the Olympics in certain time periods is being outrated by other programming. "For years, NBC had all the top-rated shows like Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, ER," Armando said. "When this programming was pre-empted for the Olympics, those viewers stayed with NBC. Now ABC and Fox have the most- watched shows, and by airing them in first-run during the Olympics, their viewers are simply staying with those shows."

Despite advertiser affinity for the Olympics, the significantly lower ratings produced by these Games could adversely affect buyer negotiations for the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. "The other networks have shown that programming aggressively against the Olympics can take some audience away," one major buyer said. "This will affect the price-value equation as to what advertisers are willing to pay for ads on future Winter Games. It might also cause more advertisers in the future to save dollars by buying more cost-efficient shows around the Olympics."