Olympic TV forecast: Total snow coverage

Posted: February 05, 2006

NBC plans a Winter Olympics lineup that Frosty the Snowman would love, if he could stay cozy by the tube without melting. But not even a slip-slide fanatic like Frosty will be able to keep up with it all.

Running Friday through Feb. 26, the coverage will average 24 1/2 hours a day across broadcast and cable networks.

Snowmen and figure fanatics aren't the only ones anticipating the Games from Turin, Italy.

The avalanche of blade, board and broom competition - including comprehensive curling coverage on cable - has attracted attention from TV folks and advertisers far more interested in cold cash than snow and ice.

As in the past, other TV networks will try to duck competition with the Olympics ratings behemoth. Hollywood has moved the Oscar ceremonies to March, and the networks will rely more heavily on reruns, going lighter on premieres and events.

But in 2006, the networks have also slotted some big shows against NBC's winter wonderland, including American Idol and Survivor.

"This is probably the most competition the Olympics have ever faced, considering the heavy hitters like Survivor and American Idol," said Kelly Kahl, CBS executive vice president of program planning and scheduling, in a telephone interview.

On the morning of Feb. 15, TV industry eyes will focus not on the stick-handling of Kazakstan's hockey forward Andrey Pchelyakov in his game against Sweden, shown live on MSNBC, but on the Nielsen ratings to see if Fox's American Idol outpointed NBC's skiing, skating and luge.

If Idol comes out on top, it would be an extremely rare ratings victory for an entertainment show over the Olympics.

During the Games, there will be four more nights of American Idol, the only show currently on TV whose audience rivals the size of Winter Olympics audiences of the past.

"Ratings for an event like the Olympics aren't necessarily drawn from the usual prime-time television audience," said Preston Beckman, Fox's executive vice president for strategic program planning. "For us to suddenly program differently for those two weeks would be a mistake for our network."

On the other hand, NBC, and some of its cable allies - MSNBC, CNBC, the USA Network - will be unrecognizable during the Games.

Despite the six-hour time difference, the cable channels will be awash in live coverage, the most ever from a Winter Olympics, including all 54 men's and women's hockey games live without commercials on cable, except the gold medal games, which will be on NBC - and 15 of 26 curling matches.

(Curling proved strangely popular during the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, executive producer David Neal said in a telephone interview from Turin. "Maybe it's because a beer at the end is an absolute ritual," he speculated.)

The marquee prime-time programming of the most popular sports - including figure skating, snowboarding and downhill skiing - will be entirely tape-delayed on NBC itself.

"We do studies repeatedly on this," Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics, told TV critics in Los Angeles last month. "Over 90 percent [of viewers] say that they're available in prime time and at no other point during the day."

With the Internet and other cable news stations, it will be harder than ever to avoid knowing who won the day before, as the TV show starts in Philadelphia at 2 a.m. Italian time. Most viewers don't care, he said.

The Winter Olympics provide a slippery slope for networks going up against them. Excluding the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway, when the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan soap opera sent audience interest into a frothy frenzy approaching that of the annual Oscar show, the February Games since 1988 have averaged an 18.4 prime-time rating, night in and night out, according to Nielsen Media Research.

That's four points higher than Desperate Housewives has averaged this season, 2.5 points higher than CSI. Only one series this season has higher numbers: the Tuesday edition of American Idol.

"We have to probably gamble a little bit on how we anticipate the Games will do," said CBS's Kahl. "For us, it's a mix. Most of our scripted programming will be repeats. But we have original movies, and Survivor."

At ABC, which plans some new series installments and some reruns, Jeffrey Bader, executive vice president of ABC Entertainment, said, "It makes sense to save some original episodes for March. Still, this is about as competitive a February 'sweeps' as we could hope to have in an Olympic year."

Easy for him to say, with not just Desperate Housewives, Lost, and Dancing With the Stars, but also today's Super Bowl, the ultimate American sporting event, inflating the numbers.

Both Neal and Ebersol promise that their coverage, though providing strong emphasis on American athletes - "these incredible kids," Ebersol called them - will avoid the xenophobia of some previous Olympics programs.

One of the building blocks of NBC's Olympic production is to be international, Neal said: "Our profile unit has a hard-and-fast rule that we will always do more than 50 percent about international athletes." Of about 60 packages, he said, fewer than 25 feature Americans.

"This is the single best international gathering, bar none - the youth of the world gathered for nothing but friendly competition," Neal said.

The TV competition isn't so friendly. With $1.5 billion gone for the rights alone, NBC is looking for a clean sweep in the ratings to rival the Olympic champion curling brooms.

And ABC, CBS and Fox, with twinkle-toed dancers, half-naked island tribes, and full-throated screechers and warblers, are hoping to put a little melt into those expectations.

To comment on this article, go to: http://go.philly.com/askstorm. Contact television critic Jonathan Storm privately at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/jonathanstorm.

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