Prior to the Olympics, NBC smartly touted that you could watch the Games pretty much any way possible. There was NBC, the cable networks and even new channels devoted to single sports like soccer and hoops. And then there was all the new media. Equestrian on your computer? You betcha. Team handball on your cellphone? Apparently.
NBC did this for one reason: It spent over $1 billion on these Games. What if no one showed up to watch on television?
That was the nightmare scenario. While sports on network TV has held up even as entertainment schedules crumbled, NBC wanted to get out in front of the negative media coverage that would rain down if viewership wasn't good. It was spinning the new media stuff early and often. I'm sure PR staffers had every new media press release you could imagine ready to go if network coverage suffered: OK, primetime viewing was down 10%, but 8,463 people watched the trampoline finals on VOD! (Yes, there is a sport called “trampoline.” And no, I have no idea what the hell it is, either.)
But a funny thing happened on the way to the iPhone. People have been watching the Olympics on television. Lots of 'em. So score one for the good old-fashioned television set.
It started when the opening ceremonies delivered a massive 35 million people on NBC despite a 12-hour delay. Yes, I said 35 million people watched NBC at once.
Some media members jumped on the fact that there were fake fireworks or something. Yawn. For 35 million people, NBC would have faked the whole opening ceremonies. As would have CBS, ABC and Fox, and anyone else with half a brain.
But as the Games went on, network ratings held up.
They held up as Michael Phelps became the latest Olympian to capture American hearts.
They held up as the U.S. women gymnastics team broke those same hearts by pulling the greatest Olympic choke job since Michelle Kwan disappointed every time out. Who cares if the Chinese girls were all 9 years old, American girls still kept falling down. I don't know a lot about gymnastics, but I don't think that's good. At least two of 'em bounced back in the all-arounds.
And the ratings even held up as NBC crammed the “sport” (and I use the term loosely) of synchronized diving down our throats every night.
I thought for sure NBC's ratings were finally going to plummet one night when, with gymnastics and swimming still to show, the network took time for some absurd Mary Carillo story on the sex life of panda bears, or something like that. Then I turned and saw my soulless wife and mother-in-law with tears in their eyes. Your Olympic target audience, ladies and gents.
We've learned a lot this year about how little we know about television, but one thing seems constant: Major sports properties work. They come with astronomical price tags, but they're one of the few sure things left in television. Add in the female draw of the Olympics, and you have proof that once in a while, TV can still deliver.
And don't think the other networks weren't privately cheering the success of an event that proves this all-around point.
I actually laughed out loud when I saw a CBS press release last week about a new 15-year deal with the Southeastern Conference to show college football and hoops games through 2025.
2025! But I'd be locking up my sports properties, too.
I have no idea how many people are going to turn up to watch CSI, House, Grey's Anatomy or Heroes this fall, but it's a pretty safe bet that if the student-athletes from Mississippi and the student-athletes from Tennessee are still playing football against each other in 2025 and there is such a thing as television, people will be watching.
And for two weeks in August of 2008, it looks like we've been reminded once again that every now and again television can still be the veteran winner.
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