Skier Bode Miller isn't the only one suffering through a tough Winter Olympics. NBC Universal, which is covering the Turin events on its broadcast and cable networks, is struggling with some of the lowest ratings in the history of the games.
During the key 8 p.m. hour on Thursday, for instance, NBC's coverage averaged just 15.8 million total viewers, well behind ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" (18.3 million) and CBS' "Survivor: Panama" (17.1 million), according to early data from Nielsen Media Research. It was the first time Olympic coverage placed third in any time slot since the Albertville Games in February 1992. However, NBC's competitive position improved later in the evening, when ABC and CBS switched to repeats, and the network ended up winning the night.
Still, the Games are down dramatically from the last two Winter Olympics. NBC's first week of prime-time Olympic coverage has averaged 20.8 million viewers, down 35% compared with the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 and off 20% compared with the Nagano Olympics in 1998.
Analysts blame the drop-off at least partly on Turin's scarcity of well-known American athletes. Skater Michelle Kwan, perhaps the best-recognized Olympian to U.S. viewers, was forced to drop out of competition because of injuries. Miller, touted as a top contender, hasn't won a medal.
"A lot of the athletic performances of American athletes have been subpar," said Brad Adgate of Horizon Media.
Another twist: Rival networks, which have traditionally punted with repeat programming during the Olympics, this year are aggressively countering the Games with popular series such as Fox's "American Idol," ABC's "Dancing" and CBS' "Survivor." Each has notched victories against the Olympics.
NBC executives say they expected the games to deliver lower ratings than Salt Lake City because Olympics in the United States naturally generate higher interest among Americans. The network says it's mostly meeting the ratings guaranteed to advertisers who bought time during the Olympics and thus will have to run few or no "make-good" ads to compensate ad buyers.
"We continue to expand our audience, reaching them everywhere they consume media on cable and online," Randy Falco, president and chief operating officer of NBC Universal Television Group, said in a statement issued Thursday.
But there's no question the lackluster Olympics are bad news for NBC, which is using the Games to promote new series such as "Conviction," a drama from "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf. Industry insiders now agree that, even with the Games, NBC is virtually certain to finish the season in fourth place in the advertiser-friendly category of adults ages 18 to 49.