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NFL RIVALS, STUMBLING GYMNASTS SEND OLYMPICS RATINGS TUMBLING

Observations of a dial-switcher watching the Sydney Olympics on CBC and NBC:

Swimming heats in prime time. The bomb-out of the United States men's and women's gymnastics teams. Newspaper and Internet reports several hours before events air. And perhaps boredom with all those repetitious and predictable, soap opera-like, up-close and personal pieces with athletes. Competition with the NFL.

Perhaps all those things have contributed to the disappointing early ratings that NBC received for its taped coverage of the Summer Olympics. Clearly, the record number of hours carried by NBC isn't supported by the need for them. The inclusion of swimming heats in prime time is evidence of that.

The local ratings for Monday night's prime time coverage, which included swimming, hit a low of 11.7 on Channel 2 and didn't even win the evening. Dallas' victory over Washington, which started at 9 p.m., in the Monday Night Football game scored 13.7. CBC's Olympic coverage ranged from 2.3 to a 3.1 from 8:15 p.m. to 10 p.m.

An outbreak of cheerleading also occurred Monday night on NBC. Swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines and gymnastics expert Tim Daggett acted like, well, Canadian analysts when the Americans did well. And in gymnastics that wasn't too often. It almost sounded like an act of desperation by NBC, but I doubt that was the case.

Even the "Today" show is getting in on the act of revealing results before its network airs them. On Tuesday morning, Katie Couric introduced a canned piece on Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe by telling the early morning audience that he had won his third gold medal in a relay a few hours earlier.

If I were NBC, I'd stop pretending that anyone doesn't have the results and begin promoting who won. On Tuesday, the promos for prime time might have said: "Watch American Tom Malchow and Australian Ian Thorpe win golds."

Canadian announcers don't tend to be the most exciting in the world, but stroke-by-stroke swimming announcer Steve Armitage and analyst Byron MacDonald are as enthusiastic and knowledgeable as anyone on NBC.

VCR alert: Since NBC's entire coverage is on tape and doesn't end until midnight, you might consider taping CBC's live early morning coverage to watch it at your convenience in the evening. You'll save some sleep for sure. On Tuesday morning, Thorpe's latest gold and the victory by Malchow aired between 4 and 6 a.m. on CBC.

If you set your VCR at 4 a.m any day, you're bound to get most of the day's major events. On Thursday, (set the VCR on Wednesday night) CBC is carrying the women's individual all-around final in gymnastics and several more men's and women's swimming finals.

On Friday, (set the VCR on Thursday night), there are several more swimming finals. But the big morning is Saturday (set the VCR on Friday night). At 5 a.m., American Marion Jones goes for the gold in the 100 meter women's final and Maurice Greene battles Canadians Bruny Surin and Donovan Bailey in the 100 meter men's final. If you don't tape CBC, you'll have to wait until Saturday night for the 10-second races.

There are also some big swimming events in late night Friday, starting at 12:30 a.m. (Saturday) that will be carried live on CBC.

NBC is giving away cars nightly on its Internet site, a sure sign that it may have anticipated some ratings difficulties. The U.S. track team will need to be great in order for NBC to stage a ratings comeback. If the comeback doesn't happen, you can expect a sea of extra commercials to appear to soothe advertisers who want more bang for their buck.

In a way, the Canadian ratings for CBC's coverage validate NBC's decision to avoid airing events live in the early morning hours. But the CBC ratings in prime time also validate the Canadian network's decision to air as many things live in prime time as they can.

According to the preliminary CBC ratings, the afternoon repeat coverage of the Olympic ceremonies at 2 p.m. drew 760,000 viewers and Friday evening's live telecast of the women's triathlon drew 1,591,000 viewers.

On Saturday morning, CBC had 312,000 viewers in the early morning, 786,000 viewers for taped cover at 9 a.m., 1,581,000 viewers for afternoon and prime time, 956,000 viewers from 11:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. and 119,000 viewers from 3 to 6 a.m.

On Sunday morning, 263,000 watched from 6 to 9 a.m., 911,000 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., 1,521,000 in prime time and 639,000 in late night.

Clearly, the Canadians prefer live coverage in prime time to the early morning by a huge margin.

There seems to be some kind of law against editing the opening ceremonies, even though several NBC commentators later mentioned that some of the Australian symbolism in the opening may have been lost on Americans. Unquestionably, the final 45 minutes Friday was the highlight, starting with the celebration of the great Australian female athletes. And the choice of Cathy Freeman, the aboriginal athlete, to light the flame after she walked on water, was inspiring.

The coverage of the opening ceremonies highlighted the differences between NBC and CBC. CBC's commentators barely said anything while Freeman lit the torch and didn't seem to notice a technical problem that delayed the rise of the flame up the stadium steps.

NBC's Bob Costas and Katie Couric were much more talkative, with Costas speculating on who would be the choice to light the flame and agreeing with it after Freeman appeared. And there was extensive discussion of the delay that threatened the high-wire act.

NBC showed itself to be a good sport Saturday night when the Australian swimmers upset the Americans in the 400 meter relay, ending the United States' Olympic unbeaten streak in the race. The network ran the medal ceremony, which included the playing of the Australian national anthem.

Tim McGraw, the favorite of the Erie County Sheriff's Department, is the cover boy for TV Guide this week. The story prior to next week's Country Music Awards about the country singer and his wife, Faith Hill, is extremely flattering. The June incident here that led to McGraw's arrest is mentioned, with writer Janet Weeks reporting "McGraw is confident the charges will be dropped and he has no bad feelings toward the officers involved."

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