Higher, Faster, Stronger Ratings–For Now

Are we all watching the Olympics? Certainly in the U.S. that is all anyone is watching. There have been several reports on this, but Bill Carter, as usual, nailed it early with this piece in the New York Times, A Surprise Winner at the Olympic Games in Beijing: NBC:

The Games have drawn an average audience of about 30 million a night on NBC itself, millions more on NBC’s cable channels, 30 million unique visitors to NBC’s Olympics Web site, 6.3 million shared videos from the coverage streamed on the site and an ultimate profit that network executives project will surpass $100 million.

Carter concludes The Games, nimbly hosted by Bob Costas, have been worth every penny of the $894 million NBC Universal paid to get them. No kidding–as the NBC publicity department has been shouting, the Peacock network hasn’t had audiences like this in over 20 years. The headline yesterday declared last week’s NBC victory “the most dominant primetime week in people meter history.”

NBC Universal chief executive Jeff Zucker declared the huge ratings “proves the pipes still work” in terms of network TV’s ability to draw a major audience–something that has been called into question in recent years with big ticket items like the Oscars, Emmys and even American Idol shedding viewers. CBS CEO Les Moonves also saw NBC’s Olympic haul as a good sign for TV, telling the Times, “Anybody who doubts the viability of network television after this is nuts.”

Well, as Quick Draw McGraw used to say, hold on there, Baba Looey. As The Hollywood Reporter’s James Hibberd points out in his blog, it was also the lowest week ever for NBC’s network competitors, ABC, CBS and Fox.

From the ratings week ending Aug. 17, ABC, CBS and Fox each had their lowest-rated and least-watched week in recorded People Meter history (which almost certainly means their all-time lowest; People Meters were rolled out in 1987 and broadcast averages have eroded significantly since then). Fox’s 3.2 million average marks the lowest-ever turnout for a major network; ABC’s 1.1 rating represents the lowest rated in the adult demo.

NBC’s big Olympic win is great for NBC and the Olympics but the real medals will be earned in September when NBC’s fall schedule kicks in. Will all those Olympic promos for Knight Rider and that new Christian Slater series My Own Worst Enemy drive those rookies into the winner’s circle? Or will viewers shrug and walk back downstairs in front of their computer screens once the Olympics are over?

As Carter points out, NBC stacked the deck at these games, with Sports head Dick Ebersol arm twisting the Chinese into scheduling Michael Phelps dramatic swim events in the morning so that they could be seen live in U.S. prime.

In Canada, CBC’s Olympic numbers stumbled out of the gate but have picked up as Canada started winning medals. The spectacular opening ceremonies, hosted by unflappable Ron MacLean, failed to crack a million viewers or the Canadian Top 10 for the week. As Chris Zelkovich reports in Tuesdays Toronto Star, however, “There’s nothing like a flood of medals to get the blood flowing, the national pride surging and the television ratings soaring.” Viewership peaked over the 2.5 million mark over the weekend, with CBC’s prime time average up over 1.3 million, ahead of both the 2004 Games in Athens and the 2000 Games in Sydney.

Still, if NBC can draw as many as 30 million, the Canadian broadcaster could reasonably expect to draw 3 million. CBC is not even close. If the message is that the Olympics are still the magnet that pulls viewers back to TV, what’s wrong with CBC’s magnet? One problem, of course, is that Canadian viewers can choose to watch their local NBC affiliates coverage of the games, and many Canadians have become just as invested in the American stories. NBC does a good job of hooking viewers with personal stories, with all those close ups of teary-eyed gymnasts. CBC’s coverage is more international, perhaps more in the spirit of the Games, but when it comes to viewers, apparently you can’t beat being on that podium and waving that flag.

The big winner could be CTV, which has the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games and should see a simulcast, same time zone bonanza like no other Games coverage. They’ll also benefit from a much stronger Canadian performance on the snow and ice. We’re better in winter sports, eh?

My own observation of these Games is that they are made for HDTV. The venues and vistas have been stunning and the camerawork intimate and amazing. It all looks awesome on hi-def and on the wider 16:9 ratio. More people have hi-def now, and apparently they’re all tuned to The Games.

Olympic talk make up part of today’s conversation with CHML’s Scott Thompson, who also gets into this whole CRTC approving a new Canadian porn license thing. Canadian actors getting into porn? Does this mean we’re going to see Brent Butt’s butt? Ignore that joke if you can and listen in here. Let the porn games begin.

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