Beach Volleyball Diplomacy

Rash Report: Olympics, and TV, Bring Nations Together

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Ping-pong diplomacy, it was called: early 1970s exchanges of table tennis players between the U.S. and the People's Republic of China, which thawed relations and paved the path for President Richard Nixon's historic trip to China.
President Bush flanked by women's beach volleyball gold medalists Misty May-Treanor (left) and Kerri Walsh.
President Bush flanked by women's beach volleyball gold medalists Misty May-Treanor (left) and Kerri Walsh. Credit: AP

Wednesday night had its own version of a sports summit centered on a net. Only now it's not ping pong, but beach volleyball diplomacy between both countries. Of course, China and America are on better terms these days, though not exactly allies. And the iconic photo of the chief executive isn't of the president establishing diplomatic relations, but of beach volleyball practice with eventual gold medal winners Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh. And on the Chinese side of the net, the drab gray Mao suits have been shed for the red bikinis of silver medalists Jia Tian and Jie Wang.

Cheering in the rain
Chinese fans, just like American viewers, seem to love the sport, cheering despite a dreary downpour that belied its fun-in-the-sun image. And in many ways this may be the long-lasting legacy of the Beijing games, as small-scale diplomacy on the small screen probably brought the two countries closer.

Indeed, a new dimension has been added to the views of China held by millions of Americans, as NBC's Olympic coverage continues to dominate TV and even pop culture at large. (Americans may also have a new understanding of the human speed limit as Jamaican Usain Bolt stormed the track with a record-shattering gold in the 200-meter dash.)

These revelations continued Wednesday night, as the Olympics scored an 8.4/25 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic, which was down 14% from Tuesday night and 11% from last Wednesday.

Of course, the action from the track and the sands spiked the competition by big margins. CBS had the high of the low-rated rivals, delivering a 1.4/4 for the night with "Greatest American Dog" (1.3/4) and repeats of "Criminal Minds" and "CSI: NY" (both 1.5/4).

ABC was third with a 1.3/4, the same rating as reality repeat "Wife Swap," which was slightly lower than the 1.4/4 for "Supernanny" and "Primetime: Crime."

Fox followed with a 1.2/3 (second showings of "Bones," 1.4/4, and "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," 1.1/3); and the CW finished fifth with .3/1 ratings for reality reruns "America's Next Top Model" and "The Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious."

So long, softball
Some of Thursday's on-field action will also be centered on women athletes, including the gold-medal match between the U.S. and Brazilian women's soccer teams and U.S. and Dutch women's water polo teams. It will also mark the final gold-medal dustup on the diamond, as softball won't be an Olympic sport after this year.

That is unless "softball diplomacy" is successful, as the softball community petitions and pleads with the International Olympic Committee to reverse its decision at an October 2009 meeting.

Not exactly Nixon goes to China, to be sure. But as the 1970s ping-pong diplomacy and last night's beach volleyball match showed, the universality of sport is more often than not a societal uniter, which is badly needed during these troubled times.

WHAT TO WATCH:
Thursday: Olympics fever? Sand and water, as it's the men's turn in the sand for a gold medal and the finals of the 10-meter platform diving take place in the "Water Cube."
Olympics fatigue? Maybe it's time to take a break from world sport and watch football (no, not futbol) as the San Francisco 49ers play the Chicago Bears on Fox.
Friday: Olympics fever? Nest in front of the Bird's Nest stadium, with track and field events dominating, including the finals of the decathlon.
Olympics fatigue? It may be the last Olympic season for softball, but "Hardball" and other political talk shows will be red-hot as pundits speculate on the number of states that will turn blue when Sen. Barack Obama picks his running mate.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Back to back NFL exhibition games, which may peel away male Olympic viewers in fanatical football markets Houston, Dallas, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis.

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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)

John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.
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