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‘Idol’ Sweeps Up Against Olympics

Feb 20, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The musical star wannabes from Fox’s “American Idol” have so far skated circles around the winter Olympians featured on NBC during this February sweeps.

In the first week of a head-to-head showdown between NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics from Turin, Italy, and Fox’s ongoing phenomenon “American Idol,” the reality competition has triumphed over what in the past would have been a sure ratings bet.

Fox walked away the winner in both adults 18 to 49 and total viewers last Tuesday and Wednesday, with NBC grabbing the silver medal in the demos.

The rise of shows like “Idol” has changed the conventional wisdom when it comes to programming against the Olympics, said Shari Ann

Brill, VP and director of programming for Carat USA.

“They were deemed to be such a huge event no network dare counterprogram against it with anything original,” Ms. Brill said of the Olympics. “It was an occasion to run repeats and specials. Now that there are so many heavy hitters, the networks have gotten so much more aggressive.”

In their first matchup, last Tuesday’s edition of “Idol” at 8 p.m. (ET) was the big winner for the night with an 11.4 rating in adults 18 to 49, a number more than double NBC’s 5.6 rating for its Olympics coverage, which included extensive footage of the games’ most popular sport, figure skating.

At 9 p.m. “Idol” lead-out “House” also eclipsed the winter games with a 7.7 in adults 18 to 49, with the medical drama outperforming NBC in both of its half-hours in virtually every young-adult and teen demo. In total viewers, however, the deficit suffered by the Olympics in the 8 p.m. hour against “Idol” (16.1 million versus 26.6 million, respectively) turned into a surplus once the games were up against “House” at 9 p.m. (21.0 million versus 19.3 million, respectively).

Despite the competition, NBC still outperformed its Tuesday night demo average for the season by 86 percent, even if the fifth night of Olympics coverage was down 46 percent from the same night’s coverage four years ago of the games in Salt Lake City (5.6 versus 10.3). According to NBC, the Olympics have for the most part been hitting its ratings target, scoring within the 12-to-14 rating range in households the first four nights of the games, with declines to the 11 rating range on its first two nights against “Idol” coverage.

NBC gained ground last Thursday, scoring in the 12 range in households in the face of competition from ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” CBS’s “Survivor: Panama-Exile Island” and even a repeat of “CSI.” While NBC was not the No. 1 network in adults 18 to 49 from 8-10 p.m., it still won the night in the demo.

The strong ratings performance for the 2002 Winter Olympics was “probably an anomaly,” Ms. Brill said, because of the home country advantage and the rally-’round-the-flag factor stemming from the 9/11 attacks. But other factors are also at work in 2006, she said.

“Back then there wasn’t any significant counterprogramming of originals going up against it,” she added. “It really was all about the Olympics; now it’s all about everything else.”

On the second night of “Idol”/Olympics competition last Wednesday, Fox once again came out on top for the night with an 8.3 in adults 18 to 49, compared with NBC’s 6.0 2%BD;-hour prime-time games schedule. Both “Idol” (11.9) and ABC’s 9 p.m. drama “Lost” (7.8) beat NBC’s Olympics coverage.

But recent media reports announcing the decline of the Olympics as a televised event are exaggerated, Lisa Quan, VP and associate director of broadcast research for Magna Global, said, since men’s hockey and women’s figure skating, two of the most popular Winter Olympics events, are just getting started.

“It’s possible the games will gain better footing with those events,” she said. “The Olympics are not doing as badly as everyone says.”

NBC is still ahead of Fox in the ratings for adults 18 to 49 and total viewers for the first two weeks of sweeps. However, any notion that regular “Idol” viewers may switch over to NBC to catch the men’s mogul has been firmly put to rest, she said.

“‘American Idol’ has their audience and nothing is going to stop them from watching it,” Ms. Quan said.

ABC, thanks to the Super Bowl and its overall performing schedule, was the top-ranking network in adults 18 to 49 for the first two weeks of sweeps. Like Fox, ABC is also having success against the Olympics with its regularly scheduled programming.

The network racked up record ratings Feb. 12 for its 10 p.m. drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” which for the first time built on its “Desperate Housewives” lead-in to hit an 11.3 in the demo. “Anatomy” was the top-rated show for the night.

The win came off the previous week’s “Anatomy,” which was propelled to high ratings thanks to a boost from the Super Bowl. “Anatomy,” “Housewives” and a two-hour “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” gave ABC an edge over NBC’s second night of Olympics coverage in adults 18 to 49 (7.8 versus 7.5).

Making the Feb. 12 episode of “Anatomy” the second of a two-part story line was a smart strategy for ABC, Ms. Brill said, noting that it kept the post-Super Bowl audience who sampled the show the previous week engaged for a second week.

“It was a great scheduling move to do it that way,” she said, noting the show has delivered creatively. “‘Grey’s’ is really hitting its stride in its second season.”