Let the ratings games begin

Heavily invested NBC needs to do more than tread water in Beijing

NBC's Olympic ratings fortunes and ad sales bounty are riding in part on the broad shoulders of a 23-year-old swimmer who will be going for a record eight gold medals.

If Michael Phelps can strike gold on eight successive nights in primetime beginning Saturday, then NBC will have mined a story line that it hopes will guarantee a ratings medal. The network has spent a lot of time building up the fortunes of Phelps and the U.S. women's gymnastic team, the two brightest lights for the U.S. entering the Games. If Phelps — who won six gold medals in Athens in 2004 — falters, it could be a long 17 days.

Today's opening of the Games of the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing will be the culmination of years of hard work for NBC Sports. NBC Universal has a huge investment; it spent nearly $900 million in rights fees, and on the eve of the Games it has sold more than $1 billion in advertising. That's record revenue for NBC Universal, coming amid economic woes on the home front and amid the reality of a broadcast TV landscape that has declined every year since the Athens Olympics.

But NBC counts several things going in its favor. The buzz has been growing in recent weeks, buoyed by good ratings in primetime for the U.S. Olympic trials. The controversy surrounding the Olympic torch and host country China in general doesn't seem to be affecting intent to view. And with the way the economy is going, many believe that the USA is looking for something to cheer about.

"You have a lot of positive buzz," one ad buyer said. "If we see some early success from the Americans, that's a good sign. I think the country's looking for something to rally behind."

Even if the Phelps and gymnastics story lines don't pan out, all hope isn't lost for NBC. The network is nimble enough to move toward excitement and trains its producers to look for emerging drama so that a midcourse correction might help it. At the 1984 Winter Olympics, for instance, ABC's plans to highlight the U.S. hockey team were scrapped when it was clear early on that it wasn't 1980 again.

NBC Sports & Olympics chairman Dick Ebersol successfully lobbied to have the start times for key events in swimming, gymnastics and beach volleyball start live in U.S. primetime, which hasn't happened since Atlanta hosted the 1996 Games.

"That's the first time that three of the five biggest sports in the Summer Olympics are essentially all happening simultaneously on American television," Ebersol told The Reporter last week.

Phelps' primetime swims are especially good fortune for NBC.

"It's almost like divine intervention that it worked out that way," Ebersol said. "And when you add to that our women's gymnastics team is the best we've ever sent to a Games and they are rivaled by the Chinese, it's going to be a fierce fight."

Brad Adgate, head of research for New York-based ad buyer Horizon Media, said the proof will be in the gold.

"A lot of it is going to be how well the athletes perform," he said. "Michael Phelps, the gymnastics team, basketball. A lot of it is the live sports. It's really the world's greatest reality show."

NBC's household primetime ratings for Athens was the second-lowest in recent memory, better only than the 2000 Games half a world away in Sydney, when most of the events were long over by the time U.S. viewers tuned in. Estimates vary for what NBC will do in Beijing, though most don't think it will be worse than the 15.0 household rating for Athens. It would be nearly impossible to surpass the 21.6 primetime household rating from Atlanta.

NBC has declined to give its ratings expectations for Beijing, though it's believed that they are guaranteeing advertisers about the same 18-49 numbers as Athens. That's still a positive, given the fact that little on TV is as strong as it was four years ago.

The Olympics will, for certain, crush everything in its path in the summer ratings race. It's within the realm of possibility that NBC's primetime ratings will be four times its rivals' average on any given night. But the other networks also have sensed softness in the Olympics ratings in the past, particularly in the winter. The 2006 Turin Games were the lowest-rated on record, thanks in part to the fact that NBC's rivals did something different and refused to lay down. Such shows as Fox's "American Idol" and ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," both in their prime at that point, took a bite out of the ratings.

That's not likely to happen this summer. The networks, preparing for the fall, won't be doing much to derail the Olympics.

"If you're benchmarking against third-quarter primetime network television, this thing is going to look great," one ad executive said. "If you're benchmarking against Athens, I think you're going to see parity or competitiveness."

NBC data shows that viewers' intent to watch the Games is nearly 70%, which was higher than NBC had ever seen for a foreign Olympics. NBC's also not concerned about the general trend of broadcast ratings, which even without the writers strike this past season is still down. NBC said that live sports have had a strong run in recent months with the highest-rated Super Bowl in history as well as good runs by golf's U.S. Open and the men's final at Wimbledon, the latter two on NBC.

"Our coverage in Greece was up about 14% from the coverage in Sydney, which sort of flew in the face of what was happening with the other ratings at the time," Ebersol said.

Some are split on whether NBC can capture ratings on par with even Athens. They look at the general trend of broadcast ratings since 2004 and say that this year could be poised for a 10%-20% decline from 2004. That would be a factor not only of the general erosion of primetime TV but NBC.

"They're not in the competitive position that they were in four years ago or eight years ago," an industry analyst said.

An ad exec said that barring a ratings disaster, it'll be easier to spin success for NBC, given the fact that the Athens and Turin weren't anything to write home about. "It's not like they're rolling over big numbers on this one," the exec said. (partialdiff)
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