NBC Looking to Keep Olympics Viewers Housebound

For the next two weeks, NBC executives will be praying for lots of snow — and not just in the venues in and around Vancouver, Canada, where the Winter Olympic Games began last Friday night.

After telling advertisers to expect an average 14 prime-time household rating (or about 40.2 million viewers) over the duration of its coverage, the network would like to keep viewers housebound, in front of their TV sets. Freezing weather helped the Super Bowl break the record for the most-watched TV show of all time, attracting an average 106.5 million viewers.

No one at NBC, however, believes its Vancouver coverage will break any Olympics viewing records, though some buyers say NBC has a reasonable chance to reach its stated ratings goal.

“There is some advantage to the Games [being] in the Pacific time zone,” said Brad Adgate, svp, director of research at New York-based Horizon Media, in that the network will be able to offer primarily live coverage of key events to most of the U.S. “I think the Games will do a pretty strong number.” He also believes the U.S. team is competitive enough to attract eyeballs, given standouts like snowboarder Shaun White and short-track skater Apolo Ohno expected to do well.

For Agate, “strong” means ratings above the 12.2 average for the last Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, but below the 19.2 prime-time average generated by the Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002. Games on U.S. soil, he said, tend to do better.

Several weeks ago, Alan Wurtzel, president of research at NBC Universal, said he believed the firm’s coverage of the Games could reach 200 million people in total over its entirety, second only to Lillehammer in 1994, which reached 204 million. Reasons, he said, included NBC’s myriad platforms, some never before used for the Games, and an increase in the hours of coverage.

But some buyers are less sanguine about the Games’ prospects. Some feel the U.S.’s lack of a women’s figure skater the caliber of a Sarah Hughes, who took gold in 2002, could dampen audience enthusiasm. (The individual women’s figure skating competition is among the most popular in the Games.)

The competitiveness of the U.S. women’s ski team was thrown into question last week as well, with the shin injury to downhill racer Lindsey Vonn. At deadline, it was unclear whether she would ski.

Critics also point to NBC’s weak prime-time schedule, which has dampened the network’s ability to promote the Games to as large an audience as it would like.
NBC counters that there isn’t going to be much else on to watch, as competitors are not aggressively going after the Games with huge counter-programming firepower.

Competitors didn’t disagree. “The biggest challenge will likely come from Fox’s American Idol, which will probably beat [the Olympics] each night it’s on,” said a research executive at a competing network who declined to be named.

Meanwhile, NBC has reached its previously stated ad sales goal for the Games of between $650 million and $700 million, selling to sponsors such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. The network will continue selling ads through the Games.

A network source said, “Right now it’s just a matter of whether it ends up closer to the lower or higher end of the range.”