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NBC in race for Olympic viewers

If I were an NBC official, I'd be as nervous as any first-time luger or ski jumper as the Torino Olympics begin tonight.

For decades, the Olympics have been bulletproof when it comes to ratings. They'll undoubtedly get a decent rating and attract people who wouldn't know a skeleton racer from Red Skelton.

But these Games have some obstacles that make predictions of a huge NBC ratings victory as perilous as skiing downhill at 140 miles per hour.

In the four years since the last Winter Games in Salt Lake City, NBC has fallen off the prime-time map, and its network competitors have become big winners. The success of CBS, ABC and Fox has emboldened NBC's competition, which plans to strongly compete against the Olympics.

"We're basically running our schedule," Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori told critics in California last month. "We don't feel any need to really modify what we're doing in a significant way."

Fox, after all, has a gold medal winner in "American Idol" and silver medal winners in "House" and "24." The top 24 semifinalists of "Idol" are revealed Wednesday and male and female semifinalist performance shows are two-hour installments on Feb. 21 and Feb. 22.

"We think the 'Idol' audience is unbelievably loyal," said Liguori. "This is their favorite show and we anticipate our ratings will be solid."

ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson has a similar philosophy.

"We're going with our hit shows," he said.

ABC has several of them that weren't around when the 2002 Winter Olympics were in Salt Lake City, including "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy," "Lost" and even "Dancing With the Stars." Those shows are all attractive to female viewers, who also are the primary audience for the Olympics.

This Sunday, the Olympics will compete with a new episode of "Desperate Housewives" and the conclusion of the two-part "Grey's Anatomy" episode that started on Super Bowl Sunday.

WB and UPN, the two networks that will be disbanding this fall, have nothing to lose. They plan to run original episodes of programs that appeal to the younger viewer who might not care about Olympic history. WB also plans to run several movies.

CBS, meanwhile, is playing it somewhat safer.

"We have sort of a mixed bag of repeats, first-run [shows] and theatricals," said CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler. "I can only say that I think we know that our programs repeat well when we put repeats opposite event programming."

Its most popular series, "CSI," will run straight into NBC's coverage of the women's free skating competition on Thursday, Feb. 23. CBS has scheduled a "CSI" repeat there on the theory that Sasha Cohen, Michelle Kwan and all the international skaters will be impossible to beat. CBS also is scheduling big theatrical movies on Sunday nights, when it is losing audience anyway to ABC's powerhouse schedule.

You would expect NBC to start off a big winner on Friday night, since the opening ceremonies are usually big ratings grabbers and, other than a "Dancing With the Stars" results show, the other networks don't do very well. Fox is even burying the final four episodes of "Arrested Development" opposite the opening ceremonies. NBC also will do very well on Saturday night, which the networks have abandoned. But the competition on some weeknights could be close.

Since nothing that NBC carries in prime time is live and everything is taped hours earlier, viewers might decide they can DVR or tape big events for later viewing (when they can speed through to get to their favorite parts) and watch their favorite shows as usual.

Another thing that could damage the Olympic ratings is how frequently they seem to be on TV ever since the Winter and Summer Games started being separated in 1992 by only two years instead of being carried the same year.

It seems to many of us like only yesterday when the Athens Summer Games were being played.

Of course, once the Games begin they often generate a momentum of their own. NBC is hoping the controversy surrounding Olympic skier Bode Miller, the strength of the United States' skating teams and the beauty of Torino will once captivate viewers enough to chase them away from Meredith Grey, Dr. McDreamy, Bree, Gabrielle, Susan, Lynette, Edie, Dr. Jack, Hurley, Stacy Keibler, Drew Lachey, Simon, Paula and Randy, the three "CSI" gangs, Jack Bauer and Dr. Gregory House for two weeks.

I wouldn't bet the house -- or my advertising budget -- on it.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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