Don't count on a gold for NBC
The Olympics usually lead to big ratings but rival networks are challenging NBC for the February sweeps.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - NBC is hoping for some gold-medal worthy ratings this month.
But if the network hopes to figure-skate its way to a February sweeps victory on the back of the Winter Olympics, which begin Friday in Turin, Italy, it may be in for a bit of a challenge.
So far this month, NBC is in a deep hole. The network finished fourth in the ratings race during the week that ended Feb. 5, both overall and in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic, according to data from Nielsen Media Research. ABC won the week thanks to the nearly 91 million viewers that tuned into the Super Bowl.
Typically, the Olympics have meant a ratings bonanza -- NBC got a boost in 2002 when it aired the Winter Olympics from Salt Lake City. It helped that other networks have traditionally thrown in the towel and run repeats against the Olympics.
However, this time around, other networks don't appear to be afraid of bobsledding, ski jumping and speed skating
News Corp.'s (Research) Fox, for example, has decided to run new episodes of its mega-hit "American Idol" on Tuesdays and Wednesdays throughout the Olympics, which end on Feb. 26. It will also air new episodes of "24" and "House" next week.
"With several shows like 'American Idol' and '24,' we have a commitment to the viewer to run them every week," said Preston Beckman, the chief scheduler for Fox. "We think it would be a disservice to the fans of those shows to put them on hiatus just because the Olympics are on."
Walt Disney (Research) owned ABC will run new episodes of "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy," "Lost" and "Dancing with the Stars."
CBS (Research) is being slightly less aggressive, with re-runs planned for "CSI" and other hits, though it is airing a new "Survivor" next week.
"The other networks want to avoid losing momentum and the way you can lose momentum is by saying we're going to put a Gone Fishing sign up and come back after the Olympics," said Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming with Katz Television Group, a media consulting group.
Carroll did note, however, that networks will probably be less willing to air new shows against some of the higher-profile events, such as the finals of the women's figure skating competition.
Fox and ABC could challenge for the gold
As a result, the Olympics may not be enough to guarantee a February sweeps victory for NBC. Ed Martin, programming editor with MediaVillage.com, a television industry news site, said that Fox's "American Idol" should hold up fine against the Olympics and that ABC should do well also, making it a three-horse race for the February sweeps title.
"I can't believe the average 'American Idol' viewer would opt to watch the Olympics over 'American Idol' at this point. 'Idol' is a powerhouse that is in a category of its own," he said. "You also have to consider the power of ABC's top series bundled together with its Super Bowl numbers."
A failure to win the month would be a crucial blow since ratings from the so-called sweeps periods (the others take place in November and May) include a far more comprehensive look at demographic data for all the viewing markets in the country from Nielsen and help determine advertising rates for the next TV season.
To be sure, the Olympics are unlikely to be a ratings flop. Fox's Beckman concedes that many of the viewers for the Olympics are likely to be people who don't normally watch network TV.
And NBC has already set a record for advertising sales for a Winter Olympics, with nearly $900 million in ad commitments. So this should be a welcome boost to the struggling network. Executives from NBC were not immediately available for comment about what they expected ratings to be like for the Olympics. (Events will also air on other cable channels owned by General Electric's (Research) NBC Universal unit, including CNBC, MSNBC and USA.)
In addition, Martin said that if ratings for the Olympics are subpar, it may not necessarily be NBC's fault.
"I don't think the Olympics are as big as they were ten, twenty or thirty years ago," he said. "If the numbers come down, it's not because NBC is having its own problems this season. It speaks to the appeal of the Olympics themselves."
But Beckman said NBC's woes should have some impact on the ratings.
"To be honest, NBC is not what it used to be. This is the first Olympics they've had in quite a while when they're not the number one network so their ability to use the air to sell the Olympics is not as powerful as it was even two summers ago," he said.
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