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NBC points to new trends in claiming Olympic gold

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published February 22, 2006


Between Bode Miller's implosion, Michelle Kwan's evacuation and American Idol's ratings domination, NBC has been drowning in negative stories about how little America seems to care about this year's Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

The biggest report card remains the prime-time viewership numbers. Despite drawing an average 22.5-million viewers during Monday's 31/2-hour prime-time window, NBC's telecast was still behind viewership of previous Winter Olympics. The Salt Lake City games in 2002 drew 31 percent of those watching TV, compared with 19 percent so far for Turin. This could become the lowest-rated Olympics ever in prime time.

And the competition will only get worse.

For three days this week, NBC's Olympics face TV's 800-pound gorilla, American Idol, which had twice as many viewers as the Olympics when they went head-to-head last week. Expanded to three days this week, the Idol singing contest will take on NBC's popular figure skating telecasts Thursday with a live results show; add in CBS's Survivor and ABC's Dancing with the Stars and you have one of the most competitive nights of TV in recent memory.

But some experts suggest there's another way to score NBC's Olympics performance.

At a time when the network has spread Olympics information over MSNBC.com, NBCOlympics.com and five other TV channels, judging the success of NBC's performance by prime-time TV numbers may be misleading.

"Consumers are getting their information the way they want to get it . . . across multiple platforms," said Stacey Lynn Koerner, a TV analyst for the media buying firm Initiative Media. "You may also be getting viewers who don't typically watch the Winter Olympics, who are going online to participate in the gaming experience or something else."

NBC said its cable channels are attracting 30 percent more viewers than a year ago, tripling the average ratings for typically low-rated news channels such as CNBC and MSNBC.

On the Internet, NBCOlympics.com already has scored nearly 60 percent more page views than during the entire Salt Lake City games. It's also expected to make up to $6-million in profit, a first. Even the Today show last week scored its best weekly ratings since the 2004 presidential election.

All these audience figures indicate viewers are using morning TV, cable and the Internet to find Olympics media when and how they want to see it - compensating for the six-hour time difference between Turin and the U.S. East Coast, which keeps NBC from airing many events live.

The network has spent $613-million for rights to this year's games, producing more than 400 hours of programming across all its platforms. NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol noted Monday that the network expects the games to do well in the score that counts most for TV: earning an expected profit of up to $75-million, equal to Salt Lake City's numbers.

"The Olympics . . . are now a big business on the cable side (and) . . . our Internet business is exploding," Ebersol said. "I do see a day, certainly by (the 2012 Olympics in London) . . . that we will see a few more things move over and be seen as they happen in the Internet."

Others predict a faster trajectory, with on-demand airings of many competitions in four years, available on everything from iPods to cellular telephones.

"If I want to see the medal count, the faster I can see that information, the better," said Alan Schulman of the digital media marketing agency Brave New World.