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NBC gambled on games and lost

The top decision-makers at the NBC television network, trailing the other networks in the ratings, decided that winning the rights to the Olympic Games could pull them out of the doldrums and restore their credibility. They gambled with a $5.7 billion bid for the Olympic television rights from 2000 to 2012, including $613 million for the rights to carry the current games in Turin, Italy. Now they are faced with the possibility of having to give discounts or free ad time to advertisers to make up for under-performance in prime time.

Unfortunately for NBC, the Olympics hasn't produced the results its executives had fully anticipated. Through the first six nights of televising the games, the NBC average Nielsen rating was 12.5, down 24 percent from the 16.4 that CBS recorded during the same period in 1998 for the winter games in Japan.

What is the problem? Have the Olympic games lost their appeal? Nobody has a definitive response, but NBC executives point to the fact that ABC and Fox are showing original episodes from seven of this season's top-10-rated shows against the Olympics. That's contrary to strategy in the past, when the networks without the Olympics did not even attempt to compete with the network televising the games.

In addition, many of the U.S. stars that would have drawn major attention among viewers have been eliminated early on in the competition. Principal among these is skater Michelle Kwan, who could not compete because of a groin injury. Much of the early publicity for the games featured Kwan, and her absence most certainly negatively impacted total viewership. Also missing for one or another reason have been Bode Miller, Lindsey Jacobellis and Jeremy Bloom. These were athletes whose exploits were featured in much of the pregames publicity.

The TV shows that have drawn more viewers than the Olympics have consistently been favorites of viewers, but none are the major blockbusters that in past years have switched viewers from the Olympic games. For example, "Grey's Anatomy" out-rated the Olympics but is not considered one of TV's foremost shows. "American Idol" has dramatically outdrawn Olympic coverage, attracting 27 million viewers to 15.4 million for the games.

Some attempt to rationalize these numbers by saying you cannot expect longtime viewers of programs to desert them for the opportunity to see the Olympics.

However, there's also the possibility that viewers are less inclined today to view the Olympic games than in past years and so have no problem departing from their Olympic viewership for short periods of time. I can understand that, because I am not particularly enamored of all the Olympic coverage, most particularly of the qualifying events.

In spite of these numbers, Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports, says, "NBC's ratings are so much better than what they were getting with their prime time, so it's a net benefit to them. I think they will hit their ad guarantees."

This year's games could have two major ramifications for the future. Will any network again bid as high as NBC to win broadcast rights? Given the viewership numbers this year, a considerable change may take place for future game rights. And given the drop in attendance at the games themselves, will we see a considerable drop in the number of cities making active bids to attract the games?

The Olympic Committee does not release actual attendance. However it has been obvious on TV that many events have less than capacity attendance. Being selected as an Olympic Games site has always been considered a great honor, but the costs involved for the host city keep increasing, and that factor can't be ignored.

Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News.

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