Ratings surge for Olympics, thanks to live events, Web

The Vancouver Olympics are winning back viewers, helping NBC and hurting programming on rival networks.

Through 12 nights of the 17-day event, the Winter Games are averaging 25.2 million viewers in prime time. That’s up 20% from 2006 (25% if you average all 17 days of Torino), when NBC set an 18-year Olympics low, though still well below Salt Lake City in 2002.

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Behind the ratings glory, according to analysts and network executives: an increase in live events from the Pacific time zone venue; weaker counterprogramming; and an increase in social networking that has led more viewers to chatter about the Games. Those who do tend to watch more of the coverage, NBC says.

Higher ratings “speaks to how well sports has done this year,” says Brad Adgate of ad firm Horizon Media. “The NFL is coming off an incredible season, and the World Series was up,” as were several awards shows. “There’s an upswing in event programming.”

NBC research chief Alan Wurtzel says there had been “concern” the reliable audience of older fans wouldn’t be replenished with younger Olympics enthusiasts. But the biggest gains are among ages 12 to 24, up about 40% thanks to snowboarding and other extreme sports. (The 50-plus crowd is up 25%.) “We’re gratified the performance has been so strong.”

A much larger reason is the gold: “I don’t think anyone quite expected the States to do so well,” says Brian Hughes of ad firm Magna Global USA. “There wasn’t a lot of buzz around any particular athletes,” except snowboarder Shaun White and speed skater Shani Davis.

Magna had predicted Vancouver would merely match the weak ratings for Torino, Italy, in 2006, when American Idol, Grey’s Anatomy and even a CSI repeat beat coverage of the Games in head-to-head competition.

This time, the Olympics even managed to beat Idol— once — last Wednesday, when Davis, White and skier Lindsey Vonn won gold and Idol sluggishly revealed most of its 24 semifinalists. It was the first time in six years Idol hasn’t won its time slot. But this week, Tuesday’s first live Idol performance episode drew 24.2 million viewers, compared with 20.8 million for the Games from 8 to 10 ET/PT.

But the Olympics clobbered Grey’s andDesperate Housewiveslast week, sending both to their smallest audiences yet. ABC has seen the sharpest declines among broadcast networks; several of its shows are most popular among middle-aged women, the core Olympics audience. CBS has aired no new scripted episodes.

Reality TV has been the safest insurance against the Games. Idol,The Amazing Race, Survivor and The Bachelor have held up well, winning audiences at or near recent levels, and CBS’ new Undercover Boss drew a big 15 million viewers against the third night of Olympics coverage. But ABC’s Lost also lost only a small percentage of its audience, and this week, CW’s One Tree Hill and Life Unexpected were at or above pre-Olympics totals.

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