MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Are the same technological transformations that are atomizing audiences also creating conditions to pull people together?
That's one possible conclusion as the Olympics become just the latest big event to have a bigger audience, defying demographic declines in other dayparts.
Final live-plus-same-day data isn't yet available for Saturday through Monday -- nights two through four of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver -- but unlike the huddling of judges at Olympic venues, the preliminary Nielsen judgment suggests that ratings have rebounded from the Turin Games in 2006. NBC estimates that opening weekend was up 25% from four years ago, as 117 million Americans had watched some of their fellow citizens try to win medals.
As with any pop-culture event, a confluence of factors probably came together to help NBC buck its recent prime-time performance, which eroded the promotional platform the network got for the games in years past.
Social media has spread the word. About results, sure, even before they're televised, which can dampen demos. But if the results are that the U.S. team leads the medals race, the spoiler alerts aren't so bad, and might even help. Indeed, the Facebook and Twitter tribes may revert back to more personal media right after the games, but for now they may actually be re-aggregating an audience.
And that audience has to be awed by another technology that was around, but not nearly as ubiquitous in 2006: high-definition TV, which seems made expressly for events like the Olympic Games.
But no advance in technology can transcend basic human behavior. First, most major American cities seem to have more snow than Vancouver, so it may have been refreshing to be reminded that snow can be fun as well as frustrating. More important, snowbound, recession-wracked viewers may be making watching the Olympics an alternative to going out.
And sadly, and yet humanly, it can't be discounted that the shocking death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian luger who crashed just hours before the opening ceremonies, cut through cultural clutter and dominated the news narrative.
Sure, some of the interest may have been macabre. But for most, it was probably a reminder that even though the cult of the amateur has yielded to professional athletes, most still do it for the love of sport, as well as country. And most doing it are, by most adults' standards, still kids.
And as opposed to the parade of nations separating us, the individualism draped in identical national uniforms seems to pull us together in a common humanity. The Olympics are unique in this respect, as the gathering of the world's youth is a rare moment when the world seems not scarred or scary, but smaller. And perhaps more than ever, given the challenges Americans and the world face, programming like the Olympics once again makes NBC truly "Must-See TV," at least for a fortnight.
Of course, there were other options Monday night, although for the most part rival networks took the night off. CBS, the usual leader, ran reruns and averaged a third-place 2.6/6 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic ("How I Met Your Mother," 2.2/6; "Accidentally on Purpose," 2.0/5; "Two and a Half Men," 3.3/8; "Big Bang Theory," 3.6/8, and "CSI: Miami," 2.3/6).
Fox, which often challenges CBS with its powerful "House," finished fourth with a 2.5/6, as "House" (2.2/6) was a repeat. This, as well as the Olympics, lowered ratings for "24," which were off 23% from original episode levels to a 2.7/6.
The CW finished fifth with a 0.9/2 for "One Tree Hill" and "Life Unexpected."
The most resilient program was ABC's "The Bachelor," as it was actually up two-tenths of a ratings point to a 4.0/10. But then "Castle" was a repeat, falling 40% from regular levels to a 1.5/4.
But, as it will most likely be on most nights, it was the faces of elated, elite athletes that got many to turn away from Facebook, at least until the results could be written about, that put NBC's Olympic coverage in first place with an overall prime-time average of a 7.2/18, which was 9% higher than the commensurate Monday in Turin.
Tuesday: Olympics: The drama continues on NBC, but with the planned ski racing canceled due to, well, snow. Non-Olympics: Just as competitive, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on USA.
Wednesday: Olympics: Blades of glory for some competitors, with short track and classical speed skating scheduled. Non-Olympics: More sports drama, but of the cinematic kind: Baseball movie "Bang the Drum Slowly" runs on TCM.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Ratings for the American athletes face the toughest test yet: "American Idol" on Fox.
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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.