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NBC will do it its way as long as ratings rule

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Neil Best
February 19, 2010
— Any notion NBC would rethink its approach to covering the Olympics went up in a spray of ski powder Thursday with this headline atop a news release:

OLYMPICS BEATS IDOL


Note the all-caps flourish, in case we didn’t get the message.


Yup, for the first time since 2004, something beat Fox’s “American Idol” juggernaut between 9 and 10 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday.


And that something was not just the Olympics, but for most of the hour it was tape-delayed Olympics—the women’s downhill held earlier in the day.


NBC averaged 30.1 million viewers and 17.5 percent of homes as Americans Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso took gold and silver, while “Idol” managed 18.4 million and 10.4 percent.


Those numbers in effect were NBC’s answer to the predictable firestorm of frustration on the Internet on Wednesday as a huge story played out while the Peacocks stubbornly awaited prime time.


Like it or not, my fellow journalists and avid sports fans, the Olympics are a sports TV creature unlike any other, and NBC doesn’t care how often we rail against that reality.


Deal with it: Even in an era of easy access to real-time information, many of the non-typical sports fans who enjoy the Games—including the ones in my house—like a neatly packaged, conveniently timed show to digest after dinner.


(And by the way, how is it that before every Olympics avid fans take pride in talking about how little they care about the Games yet watch them anyway—then complain about the coverage?)


NBC mostly has delivered on its promise to present marquee events such as snowboarding and figure skating live—or close to it—thanks to the favorable time difference with Vancouver. Americans Shani Davis and Shaun White won their golds live Wednesday before and after the Vonn Show.


But consider this: In the West, where everything is on delay, outraging many fans and journalists, the Games are doing even better than in the East.


Through six nights they were averaging 20.0 percent of homes in major markets in the Mountain Time Zone, 16.9 in the Pacific, 16.7 in the Central and 16.1 in the East.


Let’s be clear: As a journalist, I do not condone any of this. In much of the world, including Canada, the Games are treated as news and thus presented live.


But as long as you take the Olympics for what they are—a TV miniseries wrapped in patriotism and colorful costumes—it’s not so bad, really, is it?


Another reality check: Sunday night, the United States will face Canada in men’s hockey, the kind of marquee event for which the NHL shut down for two weeks in midseason.


Sounds great! But puckheads are furious the game will be on MSNBC, not the NBC mothership. Why would the Peacocks do that? Two words: ice dancing.


To a sports fan that is unfathomable. To anyone with a clue about Olympic viewership, preempting Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto to squander 2½ hours on hockey is equally unfathomable.


Back to the live vs. not debate: There is a compromise solution. Why not just show key events live and in their entirety, then re-package them into an evening highlights show?


(That would guard against what happened Monday, when NBC saved the men’s downhill for prime time, then boxed itself into a limited window for actually showing the runs.)


The network should consider that for London in 2012, but I wouldn’t hold my breath, especially if ratings for Vancouver remain strong.


If ESPN outbids NBC for the 2014 and ‘16 Games, I expect it would be more apt to go live whenever possible.


But who knows? By then we might be getting results beamed directly into our cerebral cortexes. For now, NBC has made its decision: Prime time is the right time.



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