Through the first week of the 2008 Olympics, prime-time ratings in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic are up 10% over the 2004 Athens games and an even stronger 16% over the Sydney games in 2000. (Based on Nielsen live-plus-same-day ratings for Friday through Wednesday and fast-affiliate ratings for Thursday.)
Mass audiences still possible
Given the technological transformations and resulting media fracturing and fragmenting of the last four, let alone the last eight, years, this is a remarkable audience achievement. NBC's embrace of new media -- a tremendous amount of coverage is available online as well as via TV screens -- has paid off, particularly with the Opening Ceremonies, which built buzz after the visceral visuals were splashed on home pages in viewers' homes and offices.
And timing has played a big part, as well: both in terms of early morning events in Beijing played live in the Eastern and Central time zones and in terms of U.S. athletes beating the clock -- and their competitors -- in the pool and elsewhere. This created memorable moments like the games' iconic event so far, the riveting race between the American and French teams in the 4x100-meter Freestyle Relay.
The hero of that race was Jason Lezak, who caught up with Frenchman Alain Bernard to touch the wall first. The exuberant embrace of the winning team reminded viewers what sport can still be all about. But the hero of the games, at least for American audiences, has been Michael Phelps, who is straight out of Olympic central casting as the Baltimore boy next door, but with world-class speed.
His gold rush has sent many to rush to the screens on the heavily hyped nights of his races. Tuesday night's gold medals four and five were No. 1 for the week with a 12.4/34 rating and share. Second, third and sixth place were also nights when he was first, with Sunday delivering an 11.2/31, Monday a 10.6/29 and Thursday a 9.3/27.
Wednesday night he took a breather, and so did many viewers, as ratings fell 25% to a fifth-place 9.4/27. Saturday was seventh with an 8.0/27, as many male viewers may have surfed away from the Olympic pool to the gridiron on several preseason NFL games, a feat Fox will try to replicate with Thursday and Friday's back-to-back exhibition games.
Phelps' filling of the Olympic icon role is perhaps the first time since Mark Spitz in 1972 that a male swimmer has emerged as the early "face" of the games. Usually, Olympic icons come in much smaller sizes, like gymnasts Nadia Comaneci in 1976, Mary Lou Retton in 1984 or Kerri Strug in 2006.
This doesn't mean Thursday night's silver and golden girls -- Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin -- aren't stars in their own right. But Phelps (not to mention beach volleyball players like Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh) has brought back male viewers 18-49 to close the gender gap of Olympic viewing. To date, the male 18-49 ratings are up 16% over Athens and 20% over Sydney and are about 91% of women 18-49 ratings, compared to only 83% in Athens and 85% in Sydney.
Of course, there are other options on TV (and three available slots on this week's top-10 list). Some viewers haven't -- or won't -- catch Olympic fever. But in general, it's not even close, as the big guy going for gold beat two CBS shows with male titles but female ratings skews: "Big Brother" (tied for ninth on Tuesday with a 2.4/6 and in 10th place on Sunday with a 1.9/5) and "Two and a Half Men" (2.4/6 to tie for ninth).
Yet compared to the double-digit average rating for the games, most network and cable competition will lie low for another week.
But the new week will bring new challenges to NBC's Olympic ratings, as well. The hospitable Chinese allowed U.S. households to watch swimming and gymnastics live in prime time by scheduling events early in the Beijing morning. This will mostly change with week two's turn to track and field, as evening events will be scheduled in order to fill up the "Bird's Nest" stadium. This means results of the "world's fastest man" competition will be online even faster than the cleated speedsters.
And it will be more difficult to discern a clear -- and clean -- American hero to root for, as gold goes global with outstanding athletes from all over the world in many events. The cloud of suspicion is still over track and field, too, as previous Olympic heroes like Marion Jones have turned goat over doping admissions.
But regardless of how the drama plays out, it will be real, with memorable moments, even if the boy next door isn't from Baltimore but Beijing itself (watch for Chinese fans to go crazy over hurdler Liu Xiang, who carried the nation's flag in the Opening Ceremonies).
And in a way, the Opening Ceremonies were all real -- if today's reality includes the complex, combustible mixture of human performance and digital enhancement. Either way, it was great theater, and delivered a 10.3/32, which finished fourth, but began NBC's success with a modern media -- and oh, yeah, sporting -- spectacle.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Friday: Olympic Fever? NBC tries to go from Michael Phelps' webbed feet to the fleet feet of the U.S. track team as competition gets under way at the now iconic "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium.
Olympic fatigue? Fox once again runs an NFL preseason game, this time with the clash of the Titans of Tennessee and the Raiders of Oakland.
Saturday and Sunday: Olympic Fever? Michael mania is partly due to an athletic rarity -- performances even better than the hype. Watch Michael Phelps go for gold No. 7 and 8 in Saturday's 100-meter Butterfly and Sunday's 4x100-meter Medley Relay.
Olympic fatigue? At the risk of creating Olympic-alternative fatigue, Brett Favre takes his first snaps as a Jet Saturday night on the NFL Network. On Sunday, catch up with ad man Don Draper, whose Olympic hero may have been a young Cassius Clay in the 1960 Rome games, on AMC's "Mad Men."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Fox and the NFL Network blitzing male viewers with NFL exhibition games will make it challenging to keep ratings momentum for NBC's Olympics.
~ ~ ~
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.