NBC Gets Olympic Boost

The dominance of U.S. athletes at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver has translated into a much-needed boost in ratings and ad revenue for NBC, and could put a dent in the $250 million the network expected to lose on the event.

A slew of medals for Americans, including skier Lindsey Vonn and figure skater Evan Lysacek, helped draw an average 26.3 million viewers to prime-time broadcasts of the Winter Games through Saturday night, NBC said. That’s over a quarter more viewers than NBC averaged at this point in the Games four years ago, and is ahead of some advertisers’ expectations.

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“Americans love their home team. And Team USA has gripped the country with their enormous success in the first week,” said Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics.

Before the Games began, the network, which agreed to pay $820 million for the TV rights and also faces heavy expenses for more than two weeks of telecasts from Vancouver, estimated the event would generate $650 million to $700 million in revenue, more than the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.

Mr. Zenkel said NBC now has “a chance of exceeding” that forecast, as the crush of attention focused on U.S. athletes draws in extra ad revenue.

The network has been asking between $400,000 and $500,000 for a 30-second commercial in prime-time during the Games, according to ad buyers. An NBC executive said the range was closer to $500,000 to $600,000.

NBC, a unit of General Electric Co., needs a success. The network has struggled for years in prime time. It is still reeling from the high-profile failure of its gambit to cut costs by putting late-night comedian Jay Leno on at 10 p.m. Eastern time. Following the Games, it is restoring Mr. Leno as host of “The Tonight Show” at 11:35 p.m., and is reshuffling its evening schedule with several new shows.

According to Nielsen Co. estimates cited by NBC, the Games have helped NBC climb into third place in the current season among viewers 18 to 49 years old, passing Walt Disney Co.’s ABC, but still behind Fox and CBS Corp.’s namesake network.

Wednesday night, when the U.S. won six medals, including three golds, NBC attracted more viewers than Fox’s “American Idol,” the first time any show has topped “Idol” head to head since 2004. Fox is part of News Corp., owner of The Wall Street Journal.

The coming week may be a bigger challenge, however. While Americans like Ms. Vonn and speed skater Apolo Ohno are serious medal contenders in several big events, not one American is a favorite to win the gold in the women’s figure-staking competition. In past Olympics that event has attracted one of the biggest audiences.

Though more Americans have watched the Vancouver Olympics than the Torino Games, the audience has trailed that of the 2002 Salt Lake City Games by an average of 9.1% prime-time viewers.

Ad buyers and analysts say that Olympics held on U.S. soil always attract more American viewers than those held abroad. TV viewing is also spread across more channels than it was eight years ago. Among Winter Games not held in the U.S., Vancouver is the most-watched since 1994.

NBC has been aggressive in using its Olympic-sized audience to promote itself, and it says it plans to increase the number of promotional ads for its new shows in the coming week. Most of its ads thus far have touted “Parenthood,” a series based on the 1989 movie, and “The Marriage Ref,” a reality show produced by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, according to television analyst Steve Sternberg.

“They have a chance to solidify and even improve their ratings into the spring,” said Jackie Kulesza, a senior vice president and broadcast buyer at Starcom, a media-buying firm owned by Publicis Groupe.

NBC said the Games have had a “halo effect” on its schedule and stations. The percentage of households watching its profitable morning show “Today” are up 7% from a year earlier, NBC said. It said “Nightly News” is up 21%, and late news on local stations is up 15% by that measure.

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