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Viewers tuned in despite knowing results

Posted: Sunday August 29, 2004 3:14AM; Updated: Sunday August 29, 2004 3:49AM
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At a glance

RATINGS: NBC drew 20.1 million viewers in prime-time on Friday for track events and men's platform diving. While the numbers are starting to slip toward the end of the games, that figure is still 30 percent more than on the final Friday in Sydney, according to Nielsen Media Research.

HIGHLIGHT: Dwight Stones. Don't take this three-time Olympian and 20-year broadcaster for granted; his clear insights helped illuminate coverage of the long jump and pole vault. With slow-motion replay, he expertly dissected how fatigue affected Marion Jones' form and explained in clear terms the difficulty of pole vaulting.

LOWLIGHT: Jim Lampley. Another Olympic broadcast veteran who serves as daytime host, Lampley ended his reportage on the Paul Hamm judging controversy with an oddly timed editorial that made him seem like a heavy-handed homer. NBC and Bob Costas recovered nicely with a prime-time report that featured an interview with Hamm.

DRIP, DRIP: We always wondered what a synchronized swimming announcer would say, now we know: "It's breezy tonight, Tracie. You can see the ripples on the water. Will that be a factor tonight?" -- Don Chevrier to analyst Tracie Ruiz-Conforto.

WHEN TO WATCH SUNDAY (TIMES EDT, SUBJECT TO CHANGE): NBC (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.), men's marathon, men's water polo final, boxing finals, men's handball finals, rhythmic gymnastics individual final; NBC (7 p.m. to midnight), closing ceremonies; CNBC (3 a.m to noon), freestyle wrestling finals, men's volleyball bronze medal game, men's water polo bronze medal game, women's handball gold medal game, taekwondo finals; Telemundo (2 p.m. to 6 p.m., 1:30 a.m. to 3:30 a.m.), boxing.

NEW YORK (AP) -- Admit it. You cheated.

NBC packaged the taped events of its prime-time Athens Olympics broadcast as if they were unfolding live, assuming that viewers didn't take advantage of plenty of opportunities to learn the results in advance.

That's like thinking everyone comes to a complete stop before turning at a stop sign. In Athens, this wink-wink, nod-nod game with the viewers helped NBC.

In Sydney four years earlier, it hurt.

Through Thursday, the average prime-time viewership in Athens was up 13 percent from Sydney. Because of those rosy ratings, NBC may beat its anticipated profits from advertising by 50 percent after all the invoices are added up.

When Dan Barbeau, a 41-year-old freelance illustrator from Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., surfed the Web during the day the past two weeks, the headlines immediately popped up: "Phelps wins more gold" or "Hamm's improbable comeback."

At first it angered him. But then he began to use the news. If he saw some results that intrigued him, he'd tune in later that night to watch the event unfold; if not, he'd check to see what else was on TV.

He let slide the little games NBC played, like host Bob Costas introducing an event like it was just happening, when he knew it was the middle of the night in Athens.

It was the same with Yasmin Negron, a 22-year-old office receptionist in Orlando, Fla., who knew the results ahead of time from Yahoo! or America Online. The only events she decided not to check in advance involved swimmer Michael Phelps.

"It didn't bother me that I knew the results ahead of time," Negron said. "I still wanted to watch the events and see how they panned out."

Robert Reed, 45, of San Francisco, is a traditionalist but it took some doing. He listens to news radio in his car, and had to quickly change stations when sports came on.

"When I watch it on TV, I want to experience it as if it were live," Reed said. "I want to experience it fresh. If I know the outcome, it takes the drama out of it."

In a world where news is delivered on cellular phones, tickers above the street and in airport waiting lounges, Reed's experience illustrates just how easy it is to find results and how hard it can be to avoid them.

The Associated Press and other news services report results instantly, and they're quickly available online. Radio provides constant updates. Dinnertime TV news programs also report results, although many NBC-affiliated stations coyly urge viewers to look away if they don't want to see them.

The ESPN networks constantly repeat results on their news "crawls" that run on the bottom of the screen. Their sports news programs do the same, although ESPN is sharply restricted by NBC and the International Olympic Committee in how much videotape it can air.

"We give our viewers as many highlights as we can, as many highlights as NBC and the IOC will allow," spokesman Josh Krulewitz said.

NBC wouldn't reveal any of its internal research on how many viewers "cheat," or make executives available to talk about the phenomenon.

But there's enough anecdotal evidence to suggest it is significant.

Sydney was generally a disappointment for American competitors and, therefore, a disappointment for NBC. Interestingly, the highest-rated night of competition came when NBC showed Laura Wilkinson winning a surprise gold medal in platform diving -- not necessarily a sport that would bring viewers in on its own.

In Athens, the highest-rated night married gymnastics, perhaps the most popular Olympic sport with TV viewers, with an American triumph when Carly Patterson won the all-around gold medal.

Between Phelps, Patterson and gymnast Paul Hamm, the first week of competition provided the United States' best stories and NBC's best ratings -- further proof that viewers like to tune in to watch winners, said veteran sports producer Michael Weisman.

The success of Athens means NBC will almost certainly keep the same approach. The network has the rights to each Olympics through 2012 and its production guru, NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol, has a contract that runs through that year.

The 2006 winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, have a time difference (six hours ahead the eastern U.S.) similar to Athens (seven hours). The 2008 summer games in Beijing will present a Sydney-like challenge with a 13-hour time difference.

Prepare to cheat again.

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

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