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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | BRIAN LOWRY

Ratings Critics Missing Points

Yes, the Nielsen numbers are down, but times have changed in TV world. However, let's not let NBC completely off the hook.

September 29, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY

Based on the media's appraisal about four days into the Olympics, one could have easily concluded the Games were a full-blown disaster.

Terms like "record low" and "below NBC's projections" could be found strewn across the pages of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today, all quick to point out how unfavorably the current ratings compared to 1996--when the Summer Olympics were held on U.S. soil--and even 1988, the last time the Games were pushed out of summer into a late-September broadcast window.

The one thing missing, it turns out, was an element often lacking in the rush to instantly analyze something as high-profile as the Olympics--namely, a sense of perspective.

Though the shortcomings cited were legitimate on their face, the perception of failure stamped on these Olympics mostly ignored how rapidly the television environment is changing--a technological explosion that makes direct comparisons to events 12, eight or even four years ago potentially misleading and at times absurd.

For starters, given the time difference, tape-delayed action and the September start as opposed to the dog days of summer, the most appropriate ratings parallel would be Seoul in 1988, and yes, this year's Games have come up short against that measuring stick.

Still, consider some of these facts: In 1988, according to Nielsen Media Research, the average home received less than 30 channels. Today, that figure has climbed to 60. It was 41 five years ago.

More than two-thirds of homes now have cable, versus 50% in the late 1980s. Roughly 95% have remote controls, up from 29% in 1985. Internet usage has tripled since 1996, while the percentage of homes with computers has roughly doubled in the last six years.

There is more original programming now--even during the summer--with which any single channel must compete than ever before. At various times last week, viewers who might have watched the Olympics instead tuned in to the World Wrestling Federation, the raunchy HBO comedy "Sex and the City" and CBS' "reality" show "Big Brother"--which, having sequestered a small group of people in a house, has become its own kind of sport, testing the audience's limits in terms of boredom and stupidity.

While certain annual events--the Super Bowl and Academy Awards among them--have weathered the erosion brought about by the plethora of choices available, broadcasters no longer capture the lion's share of viewers strictly by default. Indeed, with more than one TV set in the vast majority of homes, there's no reason to crowd around a communal hearth to watch Michael Johnson run--not when the Food Network, CNN and Nickelodeon are all vying for the attention of one family member or another.

Fortunately for the networks, the audience pool keeps steadily growing as well. There are currently more than 102 million U.S. homes with television, up from 90 million a dozen years ago.

In a nutshell, then, the networks can attract a smaller percentage of the potential audience and still reach a vast number of viewers--one reason broadcasters have continued to post increases in the prices they charge advertisers despite diminishing ratings.

Taking all these factors into account, the Olympics remain a formidable attraction, demonstrated by the fact NBC's average prime-time audience for its first full week of coverage--25.4 million viewers at any given minute--exceeded viewing of ABC, CBS and Fox combined.

Based on Nielsen estimates, 170 million people--more than 60% of the U.S. population--have watched at least part of the Games. Nightly viewership has dropped somewhat this week, no doubt due in part to the conclusion of the gymnastics coverage--considered a top draw for female viewers--and perhaps a degree of Olympic fatigue with five hours a night on display.

The gee-whiz statistics notwithstanding, it's nevertheless fair to say these Olympics have failed to meet expectations on multiple levels, beginning with the focus of most early accounts: the audience NBC promised to deliver in selling $900 million of time to advertisers.

NBC's coverage has also been deficient from a critical standpoint. In the early going, especially, it was woefully over-produced, working from the misguided notion that showing the world's finest athletes--brought together after training their entire lives for what is often one fleeting moment--somehow doesn't provide enough drama to galvanize U.S. viewers. Not trusting much of the audience to find the events themselves compelling, NBC poured on the schmaltz with a barrage of taped pieces about the athletes' lives that left precious little time for actual competition.

NBC defended this approach, arguing that the casual viewer (translation: women) needed to be presented these "stories" to feel emotionally invested in the outcome of events. This was necessary, the network suggested, because the sports involved--beach volleyball, gymnastics, diving, etc.--would draw minuscule ratings on their own.

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