Because just as the Jamaican jetted out fast and finished a bit slower at the end of the 100-meter race, NBC, while slowing down in week two, is a clear victor. The network defied media gravity by having higher household ratings (and nearly every demographic distinction) for Beijing than both the 2004 Athens and 2000 Sydney games and is on pace to have the highest-rated summer Olympics since the "home" games in Atlanta in 1996. Considering that a year is an era and four years is a lifetime in today's media environment, it's a remarkable accomplishment.
With the Olympics taking the top seven spots of this week's top 10 list, the only ratings suspense was which night would be rated highest. Indicative of NBC's remarkable run, it was the night that's usually the lowest rated -- Saturday -- which won the top spot by delivering a 10.6/33 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic.
Of course, it was also the night Michael Phelps swam for the ages (and the best team time in the 4x100-meter relay). Also augmenting the audience were track and field events from the "Bird's Nest," which gave NBC the highest ratings since "Empty Nest" a full generation ago.
Like an elite athlete who still needs everything to go right, NBC was fantastically fortunate in many ways, but especially benefited from Phelps, who came straight from Olympic central casting as the Baltimore everyman with Superman talent. And the post-Phelps glow lasted well into Sunday, as his interviews with NBC host Bob Costas and more compelling competition in track and field helped the night hit a 9.2/26, good for the week's silver medal.
Tuesday's golden girl, world's fastest woman Shelly-Ann Fraser helped the night streak to the week's bronze with a 9.1/26, just past fourth-place Monday's 8.9/24. Friday's 8.5/28 was fifth, highlighted by Phelps' butterfly-wing margin of victory in the 100-meter butterfly sprint over Serbia's Milorad Cavic.
Week two is averaging about an 8.8/26, down 15% from week one's 10.3/30. This was to be expected, given the onset of Olympic fatigue, let alone literal fatigue, as live coverage of week one went late, especially in the Eastern time zone. NBC would probably have been willing to buy viewers a cup of coffee if it enjoyed the same dynamic in week two. But Beijing's hospitable scheduling of swimming and gymnastics in the Beijing morning so they could be played in prime time in the U.S. yielded to the need to fill not only the big "Bird's Nest," but couches in front of the set for China Central Television (which, according to the New York Times, drew 840 million(!) viewers for the opening ceremonies).
This meant that track and field results were online with about the same speed as Bolt himself. For some viewers this eroded enthusiasm over watching tape delays in prime time. But for others, it may have heightened curiosity, particularly since Americans performed so well.
And NBC was still able to get the gold-medal matches in beach volleyball live, which swept up viewers with a women's and men's American sweep. Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh won on Wednesday, when NBC's coverage delivered a sixth-place 8.4/25. And Thursday night Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers powered the men -- and NBC -- to victory, with the network delivering a seventh-place 7.2/21 (according to the fast-affiliate ratings, which will probably go up when live-plus-same-day numbers are released).
Of course, there were other programs on network TV last week, even though NBC's rivals performed like the small-contingent Olympic teams from the opening ceremonies' parade of nations -- in the games, but not a noticeable opponent. CBS's "Two and a Half Men" was the highest-rated non-Olympic show of the week, ranked eighth with a 2.5/7. And even though CBS's "Big Brother" had small ratings compared to the Olympics, two installments rounded out the top 10, with Thursday delivering a fast-affiliate rating and share of 2.1/7 and Tuesday's 10th-place episode just behind with a 2.1/6.
And these low-rated shows are the highest of the also-rans: Most programs performed well below, both last week and all summer long, as adult 18-49 averages for the summer season (from May 19, right after season finales, to Olympic eve, Aug. 7) were 2.4/8 for Fox, 1.8/6 for ABC, 1.7/6 for NBC, 1.5/5 for CBS and .6/2 for the CW.
The low ratings are also reflective of low expectations, as the networks -- including a pre-Olympics NBC -- surrendered summer to a schedule replete with repeats and reality, two programming forms increasingly rejected by vast majorities of viewers.
What the Olympics prove is that while viewership is naturally lower in summer, people still have the inclination to invest time with programming that intrigues them. To be sure, the Olympics are a quadrennial event and the Beijing games perhaps a once-in-a-generation cultural, societal and sports breakthrough. But broadcasters have also lost much of their critical -- as well as cultural -- cachet to cable, particularly when summer series like AMC's "Mad Men" and FX's "Damages" were nominated for best-drama Emmy Awards.
So just like the Olympic movement itself, broadcast television still has a big, built-in fan base, but is dependent on the show it puts on. And to their credit, both Beijing and NBC put on a great show. Expect more of the same in just 18 months, as NBC skates into Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics with a post-Olympic glow and a Pacific time zone that will allow it to stage most big events live in prime time.
As for Bolt, IOC President Jacques Rogge lauded his breakthrough performance today, but criticized his early celebration, saying it was not in "the Olympic ideal."
No word yet on if he said the same to Jeff Zucker.
WHAT TO WATCH:
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 after Sen. Barack Obama announces his running mate.
Saturday: Olympics fatigue? The Minnesota Vikings play the Pittsburgh Steelers in preseason football on CBS. But don't be late! The starters are benched before most fans can down their first beer (OK, we're talking football fans -- their first six-pack).
Sunday: Olympics fever? The athletic and viewing marathon fittingly ends with, well, the marathon and the closing ceremonies.
Olympics fatigue? Come on -- just like those tired marathoners, get a second wind and hang in there one more night. Just one look at the post-Olympic, pre-new season schedule, and you'll miss Beijing by Monday.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Back-to-back NFL exhibition games, featuring teams from fanatical football markets Houston, Dallas, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis, will try to peel away male Olympic viewers.
The next Rash Report will appear Sept. 2.
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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.