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Why NBC wins despite lagging Olympic ratings

The Peacock’s financial picture is solid even though critics say the games lack viewer buzz

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Michael Johnson
Olympics: CAMERA PRESS/Fionnbar Callanan/Retna

Not since the days of ”Suddenly Susan” has NBC taken such a beating from critics. The target of the venom? The Peacock’s 100 percent tape delayed Summer Olympics coverage, which has also gotten roughed up in the Nielsens: After day 11, the Sydney Games were down a full 35 percent among households and 37 percemt among adults 18 to 49 from Atlanta in ’96, and down 20 percent and 28 percent, respectively, from Barcelona in ’92.

Still, the net took home nightly medals for original programming (and luring 170 million viewers overall) while others offered low rated reruns. ”Tell me any other event you can do for 17 straight days and attract this kind of audience,” says NBC’s Cameron Blanchard. ”There isn’t one.” Still, few are cutting NBC any slack. Says one rival sports exec: ”There’s no buzz in this country about the Olympics. They’re so sterile. And they’re doing a real disservice to Bob Costas. He might as well be in a New York studio, reading a TelePrompTer.”

But NBC has been dealt some bad cards: The Games, which usually take place in July, are currently competing with football and baseball’s pennant race. Plus, a Mary Lou Retton type personality still hasn’t emerged to pique viewer interest. In fact, this year’s U.S. gymnastics teams — typically a ratings magnet — have provided as much stimulation as the ”Big Brother” cast tinting its hair green.

Consequently, NBC, which promised advertisers a 16.1 rating among households (it’s been averaging only 14.8), was forced to parcel out free spots this past week to make up for the shortfall. But the Peacock — which paid $3.5 billion for the Games through 2008 — claims it’s already pocketed $900 million from Olympic ad sales, enough to cover the Sydney rights ($705 million) and the cost of production ($125 million). And chances are the net will regain some viewers with the mostly live 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

But then the question becomes, Will NBC go live or Memorex for the 2004 Games in Athens, where there’s a six hour time difference from EST versus Sydney’s 15 hours? Says the rival exec: ”If they come up with the excuse they can’t do it live, that won’t sit well.” Nor would another lackluster gymnastics team.

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