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NBC faces uphill battle to get Olympics viewers

NBC isn’t going to breeze into the record books with the 2010 Winter Olympics, although it won’t be for a lack of trying.

Coverage of the Vancouver, B.C., games kicks off on Friday, Feb. 12, and the network is expecting 185 million people will tune in over 17 days. That number would be slightly higher than the 184 million viewers that the Torino, Italy, Olympics received in 2006, according to ad agency Horizon Media.

“We don’t speculate as to what our ratings will be. However, we are hopeful, given that this is a North American Olympics with the most live coverage ever for a Winter Games and potentially the strongest Team USA we have ever seen,” said an NBC Sports spokesman.

One of the challenges NBC faces for the 2010 Winter Olympics is stiff competition from the No. 1 show on TV, Fox’s “American Idol.”

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

Stunning visualsSo the network is working hard — and counting on some luck — to attract as many viewers as possible. One of the things it’s doing is making these the most visually stunning Olympics in history. The Vancouver Games are the first Olympics available in high definition from beginning to end, and NBC’s online coverage will be HD-quality, too.

The striking visuals are likely to lure in viewers, said Neal Pilson, a sports marketing consultant with Pilson Communications.

“The Winter Games, in particular, are all about the pictures,” he said. “It’s a kaleidoscope of skiing, hockey, figure skating and speed skating. That’s critical to generating good ratings.”

NBC is also giving viewers every chance to watch their favorite events.

It has more than 800 hours of Olympics programming — nearly twice the coverage for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy — on NBC; its cable networks CNBC, MSNBC, Universal HD and USA; and Web site NBCOlympics.com.

And the network is no dummy.

The network will be airing the most popular sports — figure skating, speed skating and skiing, for example — on NBC in the evening, when the vast majority of folks are home watching TV. (Historically, the International Olympics Committee and various countries work together on scheduling events to maximize coverage.)

NBC isn’t shying away from a fight, either. It will compete hard against Fox and the other networks.

On Tuesday, Feb. 16, for instance, Fox will have a new “Idol” Hollywood episode. But NBC will have four of its big guns on: figure skating, snowboarding, speed skating and alpine skiing.

Fingers crossed
The network is hoping that things not in its control will play a role in drumming up viewers, too.

By sheer luck, this year’s American winter team is one of the strongest in memory. TV viewers love medals, so if Americans do as well as expected, these could be a good Winter Olympics for NBC.

“The American medal haul should be huge,” said Scott Becher, president of sports marketing firm Sports & Sponsorships. “And, if true to form, many of the medalists will be familiar household names.”

Short-track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, who already has five medals, is just two away from becoming the most-decorated American Winter Olympian in history.

Snowboarder Shaun White, aka the Flying Tomato, is back to try for another medal after taking the gold in 2006. And while female figure skaters aren’t expected to do well, the men are, including flashy performer Johnny Weir.

NBC is also bringing back commentator Al Michaels, who made one of the most memorable calls in Olympic history when he yelled “Do you believe in miracles?” as the American hockey team beat the Soviet Union in 1980. He’ll host during the day while Bob Costas will handle primetime coverage. This will be Michaels’ first Olympics in 22 years.

Then there’s also the time-zone advantage over the 2006 Torino, Italy, games.

This time, viewers in the East and Central time zones will see most events live, unlike when the games were in Torino.

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“In Torino, you could get the results ahead of time,” said Lisa Quan, vice president of audience analysis at media agency Magna. “Now, most people will actually be watching live, which is always a big draw for sporting events.”

Only out on the West Coast will live events be tape delayed, as the highest profile events occur a bit before prime time.

Tough challengesStill, NBC has things working against it.

Fox will be a tough competitor, but so will ABC and CBS, with hit shows such as “Lost” and “Amazing Race,” respectively, to entice viewers from the games.

And, notably, the Vancouver Games are falling short when it comes to captivating story lines that draw viewers. But it’s still possible for drama to develop.

For example, in 1994, no one could have foreseen figure skater Tonya Harding’s involvement with the attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan a month before the games were held in Norway. Those Olympics are the most-watched Winter Games ever, with 204 million people tuning in.

“Ultimately, it comes down to story lines or great athlete performances,” said David Carter, a sports business professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “While there now seems to be some athlete buzz coming, it’s coming around rather late.”

And while this year’s games may not set new viewership records as NBC struggles against programming competition and a general lack of story lines, the event should still excite viewers.

“It’s a fun extravaganza for two weeks,” said Quan. “It’s always been viewed as something special. It’s a world stage and America has a lot of pride.”

Kevin Downey is a writer in Phoenix.

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