Sydney see-saw games

Half empty or half full? NBC's Summer Olympics ratings were well below its expectations, but 'still a model of success'

It was the best and worst of ratings times for NBC's Summer Olympics in the final week of the games, as high-profile American athletes hit the running track to draw U.S. viewers.

Speedsters Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene grabbed gold, along with Marion Jones, who won even as her husband, C. J. Hunter, was implicated in the Sydney drug scandal, which probably sparked viewer interest.

NBC's ratings alternately reflected and belied the dramas played out in Sydney last week. Viewer response peaked on the 10th day, when NBC scored a 16.1 rating with a 26 share on that Sunday night, followed by a 15.8/26 on Monday night in Nielsen metered markets, topping ABC's Monday Night Football head-to-head with a 16.5/28 to MNF's 10.3/17. Then NBC slumped back to a 12.4/21 on Tuesday, a 32-year ratings low.

It all added up to a 14.5/25 average over the first 13 days of the Sydney games-well below the guarantees in the 16.1-16.5 range NBC made to advertisers-but still a powerful ratings coup, facing off against fall baseball and football. "We underestimated the September effect," said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports, who projected a 17.5 rating for these Summer games.

NBC compensated its Olympics advertisers by adding one minute of make-good spots during the week-two to the nine minutes per hour scheduled, according to an NBC spokeswoman, who said the cushion was planned.

But Mandel joined other critics who cited NBC's personal profiles as a weakness. "They're not showing enough action," said Mandel. "I was beginning to wonder whether there were any athletes who worked out without bombs falling around them."

John Rash, senior vice president at Cambell Mithun Esty, said in light of audience erosion and fragmentation, the Sydney ratings were "still a model of success."

Observers suggested that its projections colored NBC's actual ratings performance, which still dominated prime time. "NBC created a level of expectations that you could argue is somewhat unrealistic," said independent TV sports-consultant Neal Pilson.

Barry Frank, senior group vice president for International Management Group, a New York-based sports consultancy, said NBC did well in the fall TV environment: "You've got some pretty good pennant races going on. Given everything that was going on, it's the best they could do."

NBC's best still figured to earn the network a profit, after the $703 million rights fee for Sydney and $100 million production cost, against the $900 million it realized from ad revenue.