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Athens Olympics a hit for NBC after Sydney low

Posted: Sunday August 22, 2004 2:16AM; Updated: Sunday August 22, 2004 3:03AM

TV at a glance

A look at NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics from Athens:

HIGHLIGHT: Women's trampoline. Now, who out there didn't have some fleeting thought of "The Man Show" when this event came on? But NBC established right away how hard -- actually, scary ? this event was. A neat production trick came in superimposing two separate run-throughs of a routine by Chinese competitor Huang Shanshan, giving visual confirmation to Trace Worthington's description of her style as "robotic."

LOWLIGHT: Platform diving analyst Cynthia Potter really knows her stuff, but was too intent on letting us know that. As a result, the women's semifinals felt more like a clinic than a competition. And she's tough! Sure would hate to have her judge our backyard belly-flops.

QUOTE: "This much we know from gym class: always have a spotter before you go on the trampoline." -- host Bob Costas.

COOL, MAN: American sprinter Jeremy Wariner has the look of a future cult hero, wearing shades during his 400-meter heat, then slowing to a jog across the finish line when he was so far ahead. On the other hand, swimmer Gary Hall Jr. looked comical in his boxing garb.

RIVALRY: Dan Hicks sharply noted how swimmer Michael Phelps kept a picture of rival Ian Crocker on the wall of his room to motivate him, just before Phelps edged Crocker at the end of their 100-meter butterfly.

WHEN TO WATCH SUNDAY (TIMES EDT, SUBJECT TO CHANGE): NBC (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.), women's marathon, wheelchair gold medal finals, U.S. women's volleyball vs. Cuba, gold medal rowing finals; NBC (7 p.m. to midnight), gymnastics individual gold medal event finals; men's high jump, women's platform diving finals; NBC (12:35 a.m. to 2 a.m.), men's hammer throw final, cycling; CNBC (2 a.m to 4 p.m.), U.S. women's basketball vs. China, softball, women's wrestling, women's singles table tennis final; Bravo (4 a.m. to 10 a.m.), equestrian, table tennis; USA (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.), men's singles and women's doubles gold medal tennis finals; MSNBC (4 p.m. to 7 p.m.), boxing quarterfinals; Bravo (midnight to 1 a.m.), sailing finals, skeet shooting; Telemundo (10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., 1:30 a.m. to 3:30 a.m.), boxing, beach volleyball.

NEW YORK (AP) -- Between Michael Phelps, Paul Hamm and Carly Patterson, the Athens Games seemingly mint a new star every day. The only people smiling as wide as the medal winners walk the halls of NBC.

At their halfway point, the Olympics are a television hit.

The blistering pace will likely cool. But the games are virtually guaranteed to be a financial windfall for NBC, and have bolstered their future value as an event that brings the country together around the television -- something that's becoming more rare.

"It's like the old days with Mary Lou Retton," said Marc Berman, television analyst for Media Week Online. "A lot of it has to do with (whether) we have heroes we can root for. I think there are this time around, much more so than in Sydney."

The games started slowly on television, much like in Athens, where stands were filled with empty seats. For the opening ceremony and first night of competition, viewership was lower than the first two nights in Sydney four years ago.

But it turned a corner Sunday, and the swimming duel between American Phelps and Australian Ian Thorpe was a big draw. Having two American gymnasts win all-around gold medals on successive nights jacked up the ratings further.

The 31.7-million people who saw Patterson's victory Thursday and represented a bigger TV audience than any night in Sydney, and all but three in Barcelona in 1992 and Seoul in 1988. Those are "American Idol" kind of numbers -- not bad for the dog days of summer -- and impressive when you consider all the extra choices. The average home receives about four times as many channels as 12 years ago.

The prime-time average of 27 million viewers through Thursday was 17 percent higher than Sydney, according to Nielsen Media Research.

NBC is about two full ratings points above of the promised audience it gave to advertisers. If ratings go below that guarantee, clients are given free ad time. If the number is beaten, the network can sell extra ads and make more money. NBC already is.

Much was made in Sydney about prime-time events being taped hours in advance and feeling stale on the air, especially when people could easily find out what happened through the Internet, radio or elsewhere on TV.

The time difference has been little hindrance this time and arguably helped. Rather than tune out because they already knew the results, viewers heard about Hamm's remarkable victory and tuned in to be a part of it.

"I went to the Internet (Thursday night) and saw that the woman (Patterson) had won the gold medal and I definitely wanted to watch that," said a top executive at one of NBC's competitors.

If the news hadn't been so good for Americans, such "in the know" viewership likely would have plummeted.

It has allowed NBC to use with minimum annoyance the "plausibly live" format favored by executive producer Dick Ebersol, who with late protege Roone Arledge has set the tone for Olympic broadcasts for more than three decades.

Tape of the best events are saved for prime-time in the United States -- when it's the middle of the night in Athens -- and presented as if the action is unfolding anew.

For the most part, NBC has been at its strongest in getting out of the way and letting the stories tell themselves. For instance, when there was little going on earlier in the week, the work of gymnastics announcers Al Trautwig, Tim Daggett and Elfi Schlegel often sounded forced and contrived. When the drama was genuine, they enhanced it.

NBC also has significantly dialed back its use of sugary personality profiles, done in past Olympics to entice women. In Athens, the profiles have been more focused and lighthearted, their use more judicious.

"I'd rather see the events, quite frankly," said Stacey Lynn Koerner, a television analyst for Initiative Media. "The stories are interesting, but if that's all you see, it gets frustrating."

Through five NBC-owned cable stations, the network has offered a staggering take-it-or-leave-it diet of all Olympics sports. A total of 1,210 hours of competition are being aired.

For the most part, they appeal to sports fans who want to see contests unfold in full, or close to full. Since Olympic advertising is generally sold as a package deal across all the networks, the business value to these cable stations is in letting viewers know where they are on the dial and relentlessly promoting regular programming.

Far more people have seen ads for John McEnroe's CNBC talk show this past week than have actually seen the show.

NBC has received some criticism from owners of high-definition television sets, who feel the HDTV feed has often been stale and incomplete. Gary Bongiovanni, an HDTV set owner from Fresno, Calif., was most annoyed when he tuned in for the opening ceremony -- and instead found NBC's HDTV telecast presenting highlights from the winter Olympics two years earlier.

"Granted there aren't many of us watching in HD, but you'd think someone would pay attention to this stuff," he said.

NBC sports officials did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Heading into the second week, the Olympics turn away from popular TV sports like gymnastics and swimming and become more of a track meet. Traditionally, that means ratings start to fade.

In executive suites, though, NBC bosses are already savoring gold medals.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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