ABC Triumphs With Sweeps Touchdown

Mar 6, 2006  •  Post A Comment

It was a great February sweeps for sports lovers and music fans, and a great sweeps for ABC and Fox.

For the sweeps period, which ran from Feb. 2 through March 1, ABC was the top network in the adults 18 to 49 demographic, thanks in large part to its Feb. 5 telecast of the Super Bowl. But the real story of February sweeps was Fox, which came in second in the demo but overshadowed all of its competition-most notably the once unstoppable NBC Olympics coverage-with its musical reality series “American Idol.”

ABC averaged a 5.3 in adults 18 to 49 for the sweeps, followed by Fox (5.1), NBC (4.9), CBS (3.5), The WB (1.4) and UPN (1.1).

Despite coming in third in the demo, NBC’s 17-day coverage of the Winter Games in Turin, Italy, wasn’t a total ratings blow-out. NBC won the sweeps in total viewers, garnered its highest-rated sweeps period in adults 18 to 49 since November 2002 and enjoyed double-digit growth over last year’s February sweeps in both the demo and total viewers.

But the era of Olympics coverage automatically dominating the broadcast ratings is over, said Lisa Quan, VP and associate director of broadcast research for Magna Global.

“It proved you can put on your strong programming against [the Olympics] and not be hurt by it,” Ms. Quan said of the sweeps. “The other networks will be willing to take that kind of chance every two years now when we see the Olympics.”

The lower numbers for the Turin Olympics shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone, particularly NBC, which was managing expectations before the games began by noting foreign-based Olympics in faraway time zones tend to pull in weaker ratings.

“But the degree of audience erosion was more than anticipated,” said John Rash, senior VP and director of broadcast operations for ad agency Campbell Mithun.

Contributing to the downward trend in Olympics ratings was the lack of big stories involving U.S. Olympians, he said.

“Athletes performed poorly in their events and even worse in front of the microphone, which negated any compelling story line for American viewers to rally around,” Mr. Rash said.

Fox’s “Idol,” which consistently beat NBC’s Olympics coverage in head-to-head competition, has borrowed from the Olympics’ traditional story line, Mr. Rash said.

“A generation ago the American idols in frozen February would have been the Olympic hockey team,” he said. “Now the American idols are on ‘American Idol.’ They have the dramatic, meritocratic story lines, but they are compact, understandable and viewer-involving.”

Olympics results being made available on the Web hours before the events were broadcast on TV also gave viewers one less reason to tune in once prime time rolled around, something NBC’s coverage should have addressed, Ms. Quan said.

“People just wanted to see the events as opposed to seeing people talk about it,” she said. “That the numbers were down so much this year, probably people knew the results already.”

There is no gaining back broadcast exclusivity, Mr. Rash said.

“It’s impossible to put the toothpaste back in the tube,” he said. “We will forever live in an instantaneous world.”

For the next two Olympics-the Summer Games in Beijing in 2008 and the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, in 2010-the details may drive higher viewership, Mr. Rash said.

Vancouver, an English-language city in the Pacific time zone, provides viewers with familiarity and immediacy when it comes to hearing results.

The Beijing Olympics will feature summer sports, more popular than their winter counterparts, and will take place in a country of increasing world power and growing interest to viewers and advertisers alike, Ms. Quan said.

“There’s a lot of curiosity because China is a huge market for the United States,” she said. “People’s curiosity is piqued by that.”

Mr. Rash noted that the Beijing games will “garner significant opportunities for advertisers.”

Any suggestion that NBC has a bum deal in the Olympics is overstated, Mr. Rash said, since its value as programming is real.

“It was still a much stronger February book than NBC most likely would have had,” he said. “While changes need to be made, the Olympics are still viable and a valuable broadcast entity.”