Lindsey Vonn pulled off what many have tried but few have achieved.
No, we're not talking about overcoming a shin injury and winning a gold medal in downhill skiing. We mean beating Simon Cowell.
On Wednesday, NBC's coverage of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, pulled off the nearly unheard-of feat of toppling Fox's "American Idol" in the ratings. Powered by Vonn's dramatic victory on the slopes that day, the games averaged 30.1 million total viewers during the 9-10 p.m. hour, pushing Fox's singing contest down to an unusually low 18.4 million, according to the Nielsen Co. A perfect six-year winning streak for "Idol" was demolished along the way. And it could happen again this week, when two-hour "Idols" on Tuesday and Wednesday devoted to the top 24 contestants square off against coverage of women's figure skating on NBC, traditionally among the most-popular Olympic events.
Both the Olympics and "Idol" are for the most part the type of live or nearly live "event" shows that TV executives clamor for these days. But the Olympics has an edge because, unlike "Idol," it happens only once every four years. As these results come on the heels of the record 106.5 million viewers for this month's Super Bowl on CBS, the message to programmers is clear.
"There is a dwindling [amount] of programming that is TiVo or DVR-proof," wrote Andrew Billings, a sports media expert and associate professor of communication studies at Clemson University, in an e-mail message. "Megasporting events still fill that niche."
That's true even though the Vancouver games will likely rank somewhere in the middle in terms of Olympic ratings. Through the first week, prime-time coverage averaged 26.6 million total viewers, a healthy 27% increase compared with the Winter Games in Turin, Italy, four years ago. But it was still dwarfed by the 32 million who watched the Salt Lake City games in 2002 as well as the 37.5 million who tuned in to the Lillehammer Games of 1994, famed for the rivalry between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. On Monday, NBC put out a news release saying that 162 million Americans have watched at least some of the Vancouver coverage.
The numbers are critical for NBC, which has spent the last few weeks strafed by the media over its bungling of Jay Leno's prime-time show. Just before the Olympics started, NBC Universal owner GE revealed that the long-suffering network would lose at least $250 million on the Winter Games regardless of ratings. But despite a few grumbles from TV critics, NBC has mostly won plaudits for its coverage, and the American team -- including Vonn and the famously erratic skier Bode Miller -- has stepped up with gold-worthy performances. NBC has used the opportunity to try once again to jump-start its regular schedule, heavily promoting new shows such as "Parenthood" to Olympic viewers.
Billings said that research has been mixed on whether special events like the Olympics can really revive a network's schedule. But "if new programs such as 'Parenthood' take off after receiving heavy Olympic promotion . . . NBC will find the Olympics rights fees to be justified," he wrote.
Does that mean that "Parenthood" star Craig Nelson will be next to use Cowell as his punching bag?
Well, probably not.
Fox scheduling chief Preston Beckman points out that for all the competition "Idol" has faced in the last week, the show is still down only 4% among viewers ages 18-49 this year.
"They had a perfect storm Wednesday," Beckman said of NBC's Olympic package. "When we look at the overall performance of 'Idol' this year, we're relieved, happy and pleased with where it is."