NBC wants a gold medal for its Olympics performance. The network's run in Athens is going to finish as "the most successful offshore Olympics in Olympic history," says Randy Falco, president of NBC Universal Network Television Group. In fact, NBC expects to make $60-$70 million in profit, up from the $50 million it initially predicted.
Through August 24, 192 million viewers had tuned into the Olympics, some 70% of the U.S. population. That's a 10% gain in total viewers over Sydney through Day 12. Athens' viewer average is up 14% from Sydney, while its national household average is up 8%.
To put that number in perspective: NBC would have to air the Super Bowl, the Oscars, the finale of Friends, the Grammys, the Golden Globes, the AFC Division Playoffs, the NFC Championship Game and all six games of the 2003 World Series to reach the 267 million households that will have seen the Olympics before it ends.
Clearly, NBC's $793 million investment was sound. And it has two key side effects.
First, the Olympics is not only one of the few remaining profitable major sporting events on broadcast television; it's one of TV's best promotional platforms. NBC is using it to promote itself, its low-rated cable news networks and its new entertainment cable networks—Bravo and USA, in particular—as well as Spanish-language Telemundo and NBC's high-definition service.
"It's another example of the upside of media consolidation," says Brad Adgate, senior vice president of corporate research at Horizon Media.
Second, the Olympics gave a short-term boost to some of NBC's most important programs: The Today Show
and Nightly News. During the games, Today
enjoyed its largest lead over ABC's Good Morning America
in four years, averaging 6.6 million viewers to GMA's 4.2 million. (And GMA
has been steadily closing the gap over the past year.) What's going to matter in September is if Olympic momentum translates into new loyal viewers for Today.
also boasted its largest lead over ABC's World News Tonight
in one year, with more than 10 million viewers to World News Tonight's over 8 million. (World News Tonight
beat long dominant Nightly News
in the key adult 25-54 news demo during the May sweeps.
Though the Olympics are a 1,200-hour cross-promotional bonanza, once the fall season starts, all bets are off. It's the quality of the new shows that count.
"Historically, promotion in the Olympics has a very negligible effect on how shows perform," says a rival network executive.
After the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, NBC launched such memorable programs as Mr. Rhodes, Something So Right, Men Behaving Badly, Suddenly Susan, Dark Skies, The Pretender, The Profiler
and Boston Common. While Suddenly Susan, The Pretender
and The Profiler
made it through four seasons, none resembled hits.
Leading right out of Sydney in 2000, NBC premiered Daddio, Tucker, Deadline, The Michael Richards Show, D.A.G
., Titans, Ed
(a.k.a. The Weber Show). While people still remember Titans
was the only show that clicked. It was finally put to rest in spring, after struggling through its last two seasons.
Falco is optimistic about the new schedule. "It depends on how well we do our jobs in terms of delivering the goods, and we think we've got the goods," he says. NBC is premiering cop-drama Hawaii
on the Wednesday night after the games and giving both Father of the Pride
multiple runs that week to enhance exposure.
The next week, NBC launches its new Thursday night, leading off with Joey. With the start of the second season of The Apprentice
and the premiere of Medical Investigation,
the network should have a big night. The test will be whether its new Thursday stays "must-see," once CBS's Thursday shows (Survivor, CSI, Without a Trace) return as originals in late September.
Critics, however, aren't quite as enamoured as Falco.
So far, they've panned most of NBC's fall fare. Still, the third season of Last Comic Standing
and DreamWorks' new animated show Father of the Pride
is likely to reap a big benefit from their post-Olympic berths.
"NBC has pretty terrific promotional muscle," says an executive from another network. "It's rare for them to throw a lot of intensity at something that can't open." But a big opening isn't everything. NBC's rivals love to point to last year's Whoopi,
Whoopi Goldberg's eponymous show that opened to good numbers, then quickly faded.
And though the other networks play down NBC's obvious dominance during the 17 days of the games—"Olympics Schmolympics" says CBS, trumpeting the ratings of its two summer reality hits, Amazing Race
and Big Brother—no one really tries to compete against the five-ringed juggernaut.
Instead, competing networks are just being patient with their own fall push. "During these two Olympics weeks, we tend to lay low," says one CBS executive. "When the Olympics are over, we'll come out with a bigger hammer."