Olympic TV sweeps competition away
By Gary Levin
|As Salt Lake City has been preparing for the Olympics, TV networks have been trying to figure out how to compete with NBC.
The Olympics, always a huge audience draw, are expected to be even more so this year: Viewers are in a patriotic mood, the Winter Olympic Games are being played on U.S. soil, and many events will air live in prime time in most of the country.
With Olympics programming on for 17 nights, tomorrow through Feb. 24, during the 28-day sweeps period that started Jan. 31, there's no question that NBC will dominate even though Fox has the Super Bowl, traditionally the year's highest-rated event, and CBS has the big-ticket Grammy Awards on Feb. 27.
But the nature of Winter Olympics viewership, which tends to be heavily women 35 and older, is leading other networks to opt for different strategies.
ABC and CBS, seen as most vulnerable to audience erosion, will largely air reruns and movies. (The bright side is, they'll save more new episodes for later in the season.)
UPN will run original episodes during the first Olympics week, followed by repeats in the second, when event finals boost ratings. But Fox and WB, which target younger viewers, will stick with original series lineups throughout the Games, with few exceptions. (Here in Hawai'i, UPN and WB programs share slots on one channel.)
"The Winter Olympics does much better among women than men, so male-oriented programming has a better chance of doing well against them," says Magna Global USA ad-buying analyst Steve Sternberg. Ditto for blacks and teens, who tend to watch the Winter Games in smaller numbers, network researchers say.
"The networks often fall into the trap of saying, 'We can't program against the Olympics,'" says Fox scheduling chief Preston Beckman. With its core audience of younger men, Beckman says, "we're relatively less vulnerable to the Olympics than some."
Fox earlier suffered by stalling its season until November because of baseball coverage, so the network hopes fresh episodes will provide a haven for Olympics-wary viewers. Just to be safe, Fox plans to air the "Glutton Bowl," a competitive eating contest, on Feb. 21, opposite the top-rated ladies figure-skating final.
"The numbers are going to be huge, but people go in and out of events; they don't stick with the Olympics all night," says ABC executive vice president Jeff Bader. "What we're trying to do is put together a schedule that's surfer-friendly and put on as many (comedies) as possible." On tap: a handful of new episodes the first week of the Olympics; pairs of "Ace Ventura" and "Indiana Jones" movies on Sundays and Mondays; and a repeat lineup featuring "My Wife and Kids," "According to Jim," "The Drew Carey Show" and "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" nearly every night of the second week.
ABC has a handful of original series, and CBS isn't giving up entirely, either, airing true-crime miniseries "Guilty Hearts" on Feb. 10 and 13 and the original movie "The Rosa Parks Story" opposite the Feb. 24 closing ceremony.
"We're obviously trying to remain competitive during the sweep for people who don't want to watch (the Olympics), but we realize the difficult task of competing with the Olympics," says CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl.