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Olympics Ratings Lowest Since 1992

February 27, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: It ended as it began with a grand carnival and circus atmosphere. Last night’s closing ceremony in Turin, Italy featured athletes wearing red clown noses, fireworks lighting up the winter air, some Italian flavor, of course, but also Latin gyrations and much more.

For those looking for highlights in the games, there were plenty, including a thrilling hockey game yesterday in which Sweden took the gold from Finland.

SPOKESPERSON: The gold goes to Sweden!

JEFFREY BROWN: Austrian Michaela Dorfmeister winning her first gold in the women’s downhill; American speed skater Joey Cheek winning gold and then donating his $25,000 purse to Sudanese refugees in Chad; and another speed skater, Shani Davis, making history, as the first black athlete to win a gold medal in an individual sport.

In the end, in fact, American athletes garnered 25 medals, second only to Germany’s 29. But there were also disappointments: On the ice, where both the U.S. and Canada failed to get medals in men’s hockey; on the mountains, where Bode Miller got plenty of attention but not for winning; and for NBC, which aired hundreds of hours of prime-time coverage, but saw ratings drop well below those from the last winter Olympics, held in Salt Lake City — the lowest overall ratings since the 1992 games in Albertville, France.


JEFFREY BROWN: The highly coveted 18- to 49-year-old audience was especially down, according to Neilson numbers. Rival networks kicked NBC further while it was down, programming hit shows like American Idol against the Olympics.

With Turin now history, Olympic athletes, viewers and NBC now look to the 2008 summer games in Beijing and a return to snow and ice in Vancouver, Canada, in 2010.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we look at Turin and beyond now with Rick Gentile, who was involved in producing Olympic games in Nagano, Lillehammer and Albertville, and many other events as a CBS sports executive. He’s now professor of sports management at Seton Hall University. And Richard Sandomir, who writes about sports and TV as a columnist with the New York Times.

Rick Gentile, in a nutshell what happened to the viewers this time?

RICK GENTILE: Well, I don’t know if you can do it in a nutshell. I think that there were problems. NBC had problems in the athletes it promoted. The American performance wasn’t very good. It wasn’t very stellar. People just seemed to be less interested. We at Seton Hall conducted a poll, the Seton Hall sports poll. It showed a 26 percent drop off in interest among viewers not to mention the 20-plus percent drop-off in pure ratings. So there’s a problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Sandomir, give us some perspective here. How important is American television to the Olympics? And how important are the Olympics to, in this case, NBC?

RICHARD SANDOMIR: The most money that goes to the IOC comes from American television. For American television and it’s really NBC we’re talking about, the Olympics are hugely important from between 2000 and 2012 NBC has committed $5.7 billion to pay for the rights to Olympics. So it’s hugely important for NBC, obviously less so important for the other networks who have no chance of getting the Olympics until at least 2014, so they aggressively programmed against NBC and really hurt them in the 18 to 49 category.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Mr. Gentile, you have been involved in producing some of these things. Everyone talks about the model that Roone Arledge created back in the ’60s and ’70s with ABC. Has the model changed, or is it now less effective than it used to be?

RICK GENTILE: I think the model has stayed the same. The model is about story telling. The model is about following the stories that take place. I think if NBC changed the formula at all, it was a little too much focus on American athletes, particularly in terms of their pre-game promotion. They picked selected athletes and said these are our stars. And they turned out not to be. But I think the Roone Arledge model is still valid.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Sandomir, what about the emphasis on new or younger viewers? It was very noticeable in the first week where we saw a lot of snowboarding events. Does that — is that — do you expect to see more of that or does that possibly risk alienating some of the more traditional viewers?

RICHARD SANDOMIR: Well, you could only focus on snowboarding to the extent that there are enough events to focus on. Snowboarding does not have many events as skiing does but Dick Eversoll, the chairman of NBC Sports and Olympics, told me that by 2010 he expects that snowboarding will be the second most important sport on NBC’s Olympic coverage ahead of skiing but right behind figure skating. Snowboarding is great for the young viewership.

Skiing has got to improve to the extent that the first week is so dependent on skiing that NBC lost the momentum that it might have had in the first week the way it has with swimming and diving in the Summer Olympics, which is usually very, very strong for the U.S. swimmers and divers.

So NBC lost any momentum they had in the first week. They couldn’t pick it up enough with snowboarding. And then with ABC and Fox aggressively programming, programs like American Idol and Desperate Housewives against it, you could not compete as well as NBC has in the past against this competition.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Mr. Gentile, I read something very interesting today that while the TV ratings were down for NBC, the Web site for NBC was way up, with 338 million page viewings, which was more than double what they had in Salt Lake City. Is it possible to read that as part of a big shift that we’re seeing and where people get their information?

RICK GENTILE: I think absolutely. I think part of the problem is the continuing immediate retrieval of information. I think NBC needs to reexamine the business plan. I think they need to take a good, hard look at whether or not the primetime broadcast is the most important factor.

They spend a huge amount of money on rights as Richard said. There’s 100-plus million additional dollars in production. Most of that is geared towards the primetime show. And if more people are doing other things other than watching primetime they have got to react to that.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think, Mr. Sandomir, about this issue particularly about people who are able to get information during the day and don’t have to wait until primetime?

RICHARD SANDOMIR: Well, that’s been a growing problem since probably 2000 or even before. In a way NBC cannibalizes itself in a successful way. At least people who are looking for instant information are going heavily to NBC’s Web site which is a terrific Web site — a lot of video on there.

Here’s a wacky idea. I think NBC really keeps all the film clips and video clips from everybody else until after they’ve shown their primetime show. Maybe it’s time to put it out there and let local news, local sports reports or ESPN be their promotion in the future. They’ve got to find a way to bring more people there.

But if you look towards Beijing, another 12, 13, 14-hour time difference depending on where you are in America, that’s going to exacerbate the problem of having people know the results in advance. Sydney was an example of that. People were very upset all that time spent waiting for NBC to show it, the ratings went down there. The ratings went back up. The ratings always go back up in the domestic Olympics.

Vancouver might be perceived as a domestic Olympics but still we have not annexed Canada yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Gentile, what do you see happening with Beijing and NBC in this case? What will they be doing differently?

RICK GENTILE: Well, I think Beijing gives them an opportunity because there’s going to be so much interest in people getting to see television out of China that I think there’s an automatic boost that will happen there. But it will be a 10-plus hour time difference to certain parts of the country. People will get their information. They will know who won.

I do think it’s time to reexamine the embargoing of video, as Richard just said. I think it’s great to have snowboarding. Again, our polls showed that snowboarding was a very close second place to skiing in terms of popularity. But I think they need to reexamine the basic business and say, is this the way we should be concentrating? Should we be focused so much on the primetime broadcast or should we look at the Web should we look at our cable outlets all of which did very well as well, and their daytime programming and late night programming. I think the emphasis has to be taken off of primetime.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mr. Sandomir, we just have about 30 seconds. You wrote an interesting column the other day in which you said it was amazing how many people actually did watch the Olympics, given that a lot of these athletes are just here for a short time and then disappear for four years.

RICHARD SANDOMIR: Well, if you look at the ratings for skiing or snowboarding, anything but figure skating during the three years between Olympics, you know you’re lucky if you get a one rating so that 20 some odd million people who are watching the Olympics is absolutely astonishing. Figure skating is the lone exception but even those ratings are not what used they used to be back in ’94, between ‘94 and 2000 in the post Tanya-Nancy period. You know, NBC may have to look at its primetime model.

However, as you look forward, they still have a lot of money committed through 2012. Maybe they really can’t change their model until after 2012.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Richard Sandomir and Rick Gentile, thank you both very much.


RICK GENTILE: Thank you.