Highlighted by Michael Phelps' 100-meter victory in the butterfly over Milorad Cavic by the margin of a butterfly wing, the Olympics continued to be the dominant media, societal and, yes, sports story over the weekend. While "flat is the new up" might be the current media mantra, up -- even slightly -- is the new ratings breakthrough, and viewers have rediscovered what a previous generation thought to be American idols, and the Olympics have rivaled that show to be the biggest hit on network TV this year.
Final live-plus-same-day ratings will be available Tuesday, so the Friday through Sunday ratings are based on fast-affiliate ratings, which only go through 11 p.m. ET and so don't account for some of the most compelling competition that ran past that cutoff. But regardless of whether the thermometer was measuring live-plus-same-day or fast-affiliate numbers, the games were still hot.
Friday: A slight dip from the week's average to a 8.2/26 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic, but not because of the other offerings on rival networks. Exhibit A is an NFL exhibition game between the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans on Fox, which delivered a 1.2/4, below the 1.3/4 for the titans wrestling on the CW's "Friday Night Smackdown!" (The exclamation point is part of the show's title, but here it's deserved!) Final numbers may reverse this, but clearly many football fans were watching sporting results that matter on NBC. The ratings results always matter, of course, even though they were also low on ABC, which posted a 1.3/4 ("Legally Blonde," 1.2/4, and "20/20," 1.4/4) and CBS, which delivered a 1.0/3 ("Ghost Whisperer," 1.2/5, "Numb3rs," 0.9/3, and "Swingtown," 1.0/3).
Saturday: Michael Phelps -- not to mention Usain Bolt, the world's fastest man -- helped NBC fly by its rivals with an 8.7/28. Conversely, its rivals barely got out of the starting blocks, as Fox crossed the finish line with a 1.3/5 (reruns of "Cops," 1.2/5 and 1.3/5, and "America's Most Wanted," 1.4/4), followed by CBS's 1.2/4, (with repeats of "The Unit," 1.2/4, and "48 Hours Mystery," 1.1/4 and 1.2/4) and ABC's 0.9/3 (for "Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde," 1.0/3, and "Eli Stone," 0.7/2).
Sunday: Women of finesse and power (no, not ABC's "Desperate Housewives," 0.9/2), but gold-medal gymnast Sandra Izbasa of Romania and the world's fastest woman, Shelly-Ann Fraser of Jamaica, helped NBC breeze by with an 8.4/24. While this number may look lower than the Saturday night, it's not clear if it's a result of Michael Phelps (finally) getting a rest or because there is one more (early) hour of prime time accounted for.
Either way, it was well above third-place ABC (1.3/4), which along with "Desperate Housewives" ran a two-hour "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" repeat (1.5/4) and rewound an old episode of "America's Funniest Home Videos" (1.2/4). Fox was fourth with a 1.2/3, as its woman of power (and some finesse) in "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" only delivered a 1.1/3, compared to the 1.7/5 for reruns of "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy." Two second showings of "'Til Death" posted a 0.8/3 and a 0.9/3.
CBS was second, but hardly competitive, with a 1.5/4, led by women of power plays (and virtually no finesse) in "Big Brother" (2.3/7), well above "60 Minutes" (1.2/4), "Million Dollar Password" and "Cold Case" (both 1.2/3).
The CW's 0.3/1 was the same rating for "Girlfriends," while "One Tree Hill," "Everybody Hates Chris" and "Aliens in America" all were repeats delivering a 0.2/1. The CW high point was "The Game" with a 0.4/1, but it, too, lost big to the game on NBC.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Monday: Olympics fever? Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, America's golden girls from the 2004 Athens games, continue their quest to repeat in beach volleyball. On the track, watch for the men's steeplechase, the 400-meter and the long jump.
Olympics fatigue? PBS portrays the photographers whose poignant pictures of the Great Depression remain so powerful in "Documenting the Face of America: Roy Stryker and the FSA/OWI photographers."
Tuesday: Olympics fever? The kids are all right -- they just like different sports than their folks: BMX biking debuts at the Olympic Games.
Olympics fatigue? With Hurricane Fay bearing down on Tampa Bay, it's either the worst time or the best time for PBS's "Nova," which examines Hurricane Katrina on "Storm That Drowned a City."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
A new storyline from the track, as NBC searches for athletes -- or at least races -- to complement, if not compete with, Michael Phelps' performance for the ages.
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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.