How Broadcasters Are Counterprogramming Against 18 Days of Winter Olympics Coverage

CBS and ABC hope reality competition shows will ‘keep the lights on’

Bachelor host Chris Harrison is joined by ESPN SportsCenter anchor Hannah Storm for The Bachelor Winter Games. Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC
Headshot of Jason Lynch

It’s one thing for a rival broadcaster to throw up the white flag the night of the Super Bowl—ABC, CBS and Fox all stuck to repeats on Sunday. But the strategy becomes much tougher when the major sports event a network is competing against stretches over 18 nights, as is the case with NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics, which kicks off Thursday night.

That’s the dilemma that NBC’s broadcast rivals are facing as they attempt to counterprogram against an event that averaged 21.4 million viewers in prime time during the Sochi Games in 2014. (Mark Lazarus, chairman, NBC Broadcasting and Sports, predicted the Winter Olympics audience across all platforms will be higher overall than Sochi’s, but the linear numbers will be “somewhat less” than during the 2014 Games.)

“We know it’s the Olympics; we know it’s huge. We’re not going to go in and beat the Olympics,” said CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl. “The Olympics is not a great place to put your first-run programs, so we want to keep the lights on during what we know is a really big event, and literally be an alternative for people. Maybe they’re not into figure skating, maybe they’re not into biathlon or luge; we’re going to offer something compelling.”

For CBS, that compelling alternative programming tends to be reality shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race, which “does pretty well” opposite the Olympics, said Kahl. “It would always surprise us.”

So CBS is leaning into that genre by airing its first celebrity edition of Big Brother, featuring contestants like Mark McGrath, Omarosa Manigault (who left the White House less than two months ago) and Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ alum Brandi Lynn Glanville. Big Brother: Celebrity Edition debuts tonight and will air as many as five episodes per week against the Olympics, leading to the finale on Sunday, Feb. 25, opposite the Closing Ceremony.

“We have one of the most loyal audiences there is for Big Brother, and with the celebrity twist, we just thought that was going to be fun,” said Kahl. Other than Big Brother, Amazing Race will be the only CBS entertainment programming not in repeats during the Olympics.

"We know it’s the Olympics; we know it’s huge. We’re not going to go in and beat the Olympics."
Kelly Kahl, CBS Entertainment president

ABC is also launching a new reality competition spinoff as Olympics counterprogramming: The Bachelor Winter Games, which features winter sports-themed contests between members of the Bachelor franchise. The four-episode series premieres Tuesday, and will broadcast on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the Olympics. New episodes of The Bachelor and Shark Tank will also be airing on ABC, while all of its scripted series are in repeats.

“The notion of Bachelor Winter Games fit perfectly, going against the Winter Olympics,” said ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey. “We have such a good time in the summer with Bachelor [in Paradise], but had never tried this, and it felt fun. At a certain point, everyone gets a little bit of Olympics fatigue, so this is a nice alternative to that.”

Fox had also talked about airing unscripted series opposite the Games, but decided on a more traditional approach: other than singing competition The Four’s finale on Thursday, its shows will be in repeats during the Olympics. “We don’t have any strong counterprogramming plays,” said Michael Thorn, Fox Broadcasting’s president of entertainment. “We had discussed potentially something unscripted there to go as an alternative,” but ultimately decided to focus on launching its midseason shows in early January, like 9-1-1, The Four and L.A. to Vegas.

The CW, meanwhile, is running more scripted original episodes than its counterparts, with at least one new episode of Black Lightning, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. “We’ll have a mix of stuff, but we’re not shying away from the Olympics,” said The CW president Mark Pedowitz.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.