Olympics didn't sweep away ABC and Fox
Ratings were good, but not great for the Winter Olympics; NBC is still left in the cold in the race for younger viewers.
By Paul R. La Monica, CNNMoney.com senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - The Olympics experience for NBC certainly wasn't as bad as it was for say, Bode Miller.

But TV industry analysts and media buyers said ratings for the Winter Olympic Games in Turin were a disappointment, which could bode (this time pronounced boad, not boad-ee) ill for the Peacock Network heading into upfront ad buying period -- which begins in May -- for the 2006-2007 TV season.

Media buyers said NBC's ratings for the Winter Olympics were good, but not great and expect the Peacock Network to continue to struggle in primetime.
Media buyers said NBC's ratings for the Winter Olympics were good, but not great and expect the Peacock Network to continue to struggle in primetime.
Fox's "American Idol" posted solid ratings when it went head-to-head with the Olympics.
SportsBiz SportsBiz Column archive Sports Illustrated email Chris Isidore

Data from Nielsen Media Research for the February sweeps period, which actually ended Wednesday, are not official yet. But it appears that NBC did not get as big a boost from the Olympics as it had hoped.

It looks like NBC may win the overall ratings title for the month. According to Nielsen, NBC was the highest-rated network through February 26. But that may not be enough to give NBC the crown with the 18 to 49 year old demographic that advertisers crave. During the week of Feb. 20, NBC actually came in second to Fox in that market.

What's more, media buyers said Walt Disney (Research)-owned ABC could wind up on top of the ratings for the 18 to 49 market for February since it aired the Super Bowl on Feb. 5. As of February 26, ABC had a 5.5 rating with 18 to 49 year olds, according to Nielsen. NBC had a 5.0 rating in this demographic.

"NBC had a good sweeps, but not a great sweeps. If you were optimistic about the Olympics, you'd have to be somewhat disappointed with the numbers NBC delivered," said Bill Caroll, vice president and director of programming with Katz Television Group, a consulting firm.

The so-called sweeps, which take place in November, February and May, include a far more comprehensive look at demographic data for all the viewing markets in the country from Nielsen, and influence the rates advertisers are willing to pay for the next TV season. Last spring, NBC reported a more than 30 percent decline in advertising commitments during the upfront ad buying period.

To be sure, media buyers said the Olympics are likely to be a boost to General Electric's (Research) overall NBC Universal entertainment division, since the network met the minimum ratings guarantees it promised advertisers. That means NBC won't have to give advertisers free or discounted slots in the future, a practice known as makegoods.

In addition, NBC Universal also spread out broadcasts across some of its cable networks and attracted significant online traffic at its Olympics Web site.

But prime time ratings are still a problem for NBC. It is in third place in the overall ratings race for the TV season to date, going back to September, and ranks fourth in the 18 to 49 market.

Three way battle for the key 18 to 49 market

One analyst said that since NBC didn't have blowout ratings for the Olympics, it will be tougher for the network to gain ground on its rivals, since new shows that it promoted aggressively during the Olympics might not do so well.

"NBC will suffer a little bit from not having as effective cross-promotion as they would have had if the Olympics had greater ratings," said Mark Fratrik, vice president with BIA Financial Network, a strategic consulting firm for the media and communications industries. "It will be challenging for them for the next few months."

Media buyers said they doubted NBC would experience a drop in ad commitments as large as it did last year during this year's upfront period, especially since the network will be able to tout the fact it will be airing National Football League games on Sunday nights.

But clearly, NBC is lacking momentum. Meanwhile News Corp (Research).-owned Fox, thanks largely to the "American Idol" juggernaut, and ABC, which has major hits in "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy," "Dancing With The Stars" and "Lost," have an abundance of it.

And even though CBS (Research) fared relatively poorly in the ratings during February, analysts said that was mainly due to the network's decision to hold back new episodes of many of its big hits during the Olympics. This strategy could help in March and April, since CBS should have more new episodes to air than other networks.

"The hottest TV shows right now on other networks are still on the upswing. In general, Fox will continue to grow and will compete with ABC and CBS for first place in the 18 to 49 year-old demographic for the season," said Kris Magel, senior vice president and national broadcast account director with ZenithOptimedia, a media buying firm.

Regardless of how the ratings for the full season ultimately shake out, ABC might be in the best position going forward.

Gary Carr, senior vice president and director of national broadcast services with TargetCast tcm, another media buying firm, said he expects ABC to ask advertisers for rate increases, since it has proven that last year's success was not a one-year phenomenon.

Lots of questions heading into this spring's upfront

Still, most media buyers said it's still too soon to predict exactly what will happen in the upfront period.

Magel said it is unclear how much of an effect the CW, the new network that is being created from the merger of Time Warner's (Research) WB and CBS's UPN, will have on ad rates -- particularly for advertisers looking to target the 18 to 34-year-old market to which the CW is expected to cater. (Time Warner also owns CNNMoney.com.)

What's more, the emergence of digital video recorders is expected to be a topic of debate for the networks and advertisers. Since the DVR has made it easier for consumers to zap past commercials, that may give advertisers reason to balk at any proposed rate increases.

"I do think that there will be tougher negotiations in this year's upfront," said BIA's Fratrik. "Advertisers may argue that networks didn't deliver as much as they have in the past.

Lyle Schwartz, a managing partner with Mediaedge:cia, another media buying firm, adds that prime-time TV has lost some of its luster to advertisers due to the ever-increasing amount of cable and Internet programming options for viewers. So that could put a limit on how much the broadcasters are able to charge advertisers.

"We're now at the point where we have to figure out if this viewer erosion is going to continue and how much money is really in the marketplace," he said.

Finally, advertisers will need to see sneak peeks of some fall programs to help determine which networks will do well in 2006-2007.

But even then, advertisers could wind up making the wrong bets. Carr joked that after the 2004-2005 upfront period, many TV analysts and media buyers thought viewers and advertisers would be wary of "Desperate Housewives" because of all the sexual content, and that the plot of "Lost" was a little too out there to attract a big audience.

"You never know what's going to strike the public's fancy," Carr said.

For a look at why some weren't expecting ratings gold for NBC, click here.

Should GE cancel NBC Universal? Click here.

The reporter of this story owns shares of Time Warner through his company's 401(k) plan. Top of page

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