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ABC Unbeatable in Demo

Feb 27, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Despite valiant attempts from Olympians in Italy and superstar hopefuls in Hollywood, nothing has been able to defeat football players in Detroit this February sweeps.

For the first three weeks of sweeps, ABC has remained the top-rated network in the adults 18 to 49 demographic, thanks to the huge ratings push delivered by the telecast of Super Bowl XL on Feb. 5, early in the ratings period, and the network’s continued success on Sunday nights with its regularly scheduled dramas.

But the majority of day-to-day battles during sweeps have not been ABC’s fight.

Instead, NBC, with coverage of the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, and Fox, with its established annual music phenomenon “American Idol,” have been regularly duking it out in the demo, with “Idol” consistently outperforming Olympics coverage on nights where the programming directly competes.

Last Tuesday NBC’s coverage-which featured the most popular Olympics sport, women’s figure skating-delivered a 7.5 rating in the demo, a number that includes live-plus-same-day viewing, according to Nielsen Media Research. Though NBC enjoyed its strongest ratings of the Turin games to date, Fox’s special two-hour “Idol,” featuring performances by the show’s 12 female semifinalists, outpaced the Olympics by 73 percent in adults 18 to 49 with a 13.0 rating.

On Wednesday “Idol” was even more dominant, scoring a 13.5 in the demo with another special two-hour episode, this time featuring the 12 male semifinalists. That nearly tripled NBC’s Olympics coverage (4.8), its lowest point in adults 18 to 49 for the first 13 days of the Turin Games.

The Olympics also hit a new low in households on Wednesday with a 10.0 rating, a severe drop from the previous night’s games-high of 15.1 and well below the 12-14 household rating range NBC has been guaranteeing advertisers.

ABC was the top network in the demo for the first 21 days of sweeps with a 5.6, followed by NBC with a 5.0 and Fox close behind with a 4.9. CBS was a distant fourth with a 3.5, followed by The WB (1.4) and UPN (1.1).

The Olympics, long considered unbeatable programming, has suffered this year from a lack of compelling stories coming out of Turin, where U.S. athletes, particularly media darlings like Bode Miller and Michelle Kwan, have either not lived up to initial expectations or have not even competed.

With only a few American Olympians making headlines, there is less desire on the part of viewers to tune in, said Bruce Goerlich, executive VP of Zenith Media.

“What’s hurt it is there just hasn’t been that much drama in Americans doing that well,” Mr. Goerlich said.

Pairing that with the natural downturns that come from an Olympics that takes place outside the U.S. in a distant time zone, compared with the Winter Games of 2002 in Salt Lake City, the Winter Games have become far more vulnerable than they have been in years past, Mr. Goerlich said.

“Fox took a calculated risk,” he said, noting that the network has been “rewarded for erosion of [Olympics] locale and added erosion that there is no drama.”

Last week Fox ran five hours of “Idol,” as opposed to the two hours it has generally run in the weeks since its season premiere in January. This is in marked contrast to CBS, which, aside from an original episode of the latest “Survivor,” ran mostly repeats of its top-rated shows last week.

CBS “is taking the mindset of four years ago,” Mr. Goerlich said, noting that the network may have missed out on an opportunity to attract viewers who in years past might have otherwise been engaged in the Olympics.

The cost is evident, Mr. Goerlich said: “Their numbers have been down.”

Despite CBS’s individual declines in the demo and viewers from last year’s sweeps, it’s been a good February overall for the big six broadcasters. The six networks are up 7 percent in adults 18 to 49 from the first three weeks of February sweeps in 2005, and up 11 percent in total viewers.

That was very evident last Thursday, when NBC won the night in the demo against strong competition from other broadcasters. A special “Idol” results show was tops in adults 18 to 49 (9.9), followed by the Olympics (8.1), CBS’s “Survivor: Panama-Exile Island” (5.5), a repeat of “CSI” (5.3) and ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” (4.9).

The top four networks that night garnered 69.9 million total viewers, more than 15 million more than the same night last season.

By taking into account when and whence the Olympics originate, and how the games are resonating with American audiences, networks can learn from Fox and be more aggressive when it comes to counterprogramming. That could mean going with original or more high-profile series through last-minute schedule changes if the Olympics look vulnerable, Mr. Goerlich said.

“Flexibility will become more important as we move into the world of different platforms,” he said. “There will be more of a willingness to take a risk. But if I am going to take that risk, I’m going to have alternatives in my back pocket.”