A lot of money is at stake. Through Sept. 20, the Games averaged a 14.6 prime-time rating, well below the 16.1 level guaranteed to the advertisers that invested $900 million in the event.
But media buyers said the ratings decline matches a continued slide in broadcast viewership and noted that the Games continue to outperform other prime-time network programming.
BEATING THE COMPETITION
"While the Olympics are down, everything else in prime time is down more," said Jon Mandel, co-managing director of MediaCom Worldwide, New York.
"There is no question [the Games] are performing better in relationship to prime-time programming than other similar Olympics," agreed Bob Igiel, president of the broadcast division at the Media Edge, New York. "It's performing double other prime-time shows."
The 14.6 household rating for the Olympics through Sept. 20 compared to a 7.6 average for other prime-time network shows.
Better news could be on the way for NBC. Network and advertising executives said they believe the ratings will rise this week.
"The second week is going to do better this time," said Steve Sternberg, senior VP-director of broadcast research for TN Media, New York. "The weather is getting a little bit cooler and people are getting revved up to watching television again. TV usage in general tends to go up in the second half of September."
Higher-profile track-and-field events will also bring in more viewers, according to industry executives, because more big-name stars will be competing, such as Michael Johnson and Marion Jones.
"It's going to generate positive press and buzz even if people know the result," said Mr. Sternberg.
Media executives blame the poor ratings on various factors, including the tape-delayed broadcasts. Fans are able to get results from the Internet -- and even from NBC's own broadcasts -- hours before the events are aired.
NBC is trying to make up for the ratings shortfall within the Games by increasing its commercial load from 9 minutes an hour to 10 minutes. That allows it to run so-called make-good ads within the Games rather than making up the ratings shortfall by giving away ad time during other programming.
"This makes them whole with advertisers," said one veteran New York media executive of NBC's plan.
PR BLACK EYE
Despite its aggressive ratings guarantee, an NBC spokeswoman said the network "was prepared for this. We will be able to satisfy advertisers without affecting the viewing experience."
Still, the increase in commercial time is a black eye for NBC from a public relations standpoint since Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports, and Michael Payne, director of marketing for the International Olympic Committee, had boasted that NBC would keep commercial time low to avoid cluttering the games with advertising.
"They always had this cushion," said one media executive, referring to the ability to add time for make-good spots. "But you would normally never reveal this information because you would be tipping hand to your competition."