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John Walters
October 02, 2000
Making sense of NBC's tumbling Olympic ratings
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October 02, 2000

All Fall Down

Making sense of NBC's tumbling Olympic ratings

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Question: Could NBC's ratings for the Olympics be any worse? Answer: Only if Dennis Miller were added to the broadcast team.

It's a joke only a CBS exec could love. The biggest news to emerge from the Olympics last week wasn't the slew of swimming records but America's lackluster response to the Games. The media howled about NBC's Nielsen woes; sports columnists tossed around share figures as if discussing the scores of some crazed gymnastics judge (13.1! 14.9!). From all the doom-and-gloom reports, you'd think NBC's Sydney numbers, on top of the figures for ABC's Monday Night Football (starring rookie sports-caster Miller) signaled the death of TV sports.

Is the picture that dire? True, Olympic ratings are down dramatically. These Games will likely be the least watched since 1968. Through the first week NBC was averaging a 14.6 rating (a ratings point is roughly a million TV homes), far below the 16.1 it had guaranteed advertisers.

Critics have chewed over the reasons for the decline—NBC's decision to tape-delay all events, the lack of a breakout star, the conflict with baseball's pennant races and with NFL games. But here's the dirty little secret of Sydney: Even with a flawless broadcast and a dozen charismatic heroes, Sydney's numbers would still be down from previous Games. "These Olympics are in a different media environment than, say, the Seoul Games," says Stacey Lynn Koerner, VP of broadcast research for ad-buying agency TN Media. "In 1988 the networks had 70 percent of the prime-time audience; now they're fighting for 50 percent. The numbers have a lot to do with normal audience erosion."

That erosion explains why, with the exception of the Super Bowl, ratings for almost all premier sports events, including Monday Night Football, are down. Yet the top sports events still overpower their competition. MNF handily wins its time slot, and Sydney broadcasts accounted for eight of the top 10 programs last week. On a daily basis, prime-time Olympic coverage has outdrawn competing telecasts by an average of six mil-lion viewers. "What separates certain events from regular programming is the way they can dominate a night," says Koerner. "The NBA Finals, the NCAAs and the Super Bowl do that. The Oscars can do it, and the Olympics are still doing it."

In other words reports of the demise of televised sports have been greatly exaggerated. The Sydney Olympics may not be the Atlanta Games, but as Koerner points out, "they're still the Olympics."