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Interpreting the numbers

Predicting the future is always risky. Just ask Randy Falco, president, NBC-TV. Back in June, based no doubt on volumes on network research, Falco predicted that the Sydney Olympics would command at least an 18 rating in prime time.

Not even close. Try a 13.8/24, the lowest average prime time rating for an Olympics since the 1960s, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The network's prime time rating guarantee was a 16.1 for the entire evening block, which aired from 7 p.m. to midnight. According to Falco, NBC started adding make-goods early in the first week of the games when it became clear the ratings wouldn't reach the guarantee level. That way, he said, the make-goods weren't jammed into week two, which he said would have the effect of "destroying" the presentation of the games.

The network averaged 20 commercial spots per hour during the games, although a couple of nights reached 22. Before the make-good situation arose, NBC intended to air 18 units per hour.

Most of the make-goods were handled in the games, Falco said. A few advertisers want their extra spots to air outside the games, and NBC will comply.

But despite the audience shortfall, Falco characterized the Sydney games as "a home run" for the network. NBC made a profit that Falco said was in the tens of millions. "We think it was a great success for all of our constituencies: the audience, the advertisers and our affiliates."

Ad agency executives disputed Falco's baseball analogy. "We thought it would have been a home run if they hit an 18 [rating]," countered Bill Sellers, a vice president at Initiative Media, Los Angeles. But, he continued, "broadly speaking, the core objectives of our clients were achieved."

Tom McGovern, director of sports coverage for OMD, the New York-based media buyer, said, "I think the general feeling is the Olympics is still a premiere event. While the ratings are down, there is still a very large ratings premium vs. your average television fare."

TN Media's Steve Sternberg added, "Advertisers are disappointed that [the Sydney games] didn't live up to what NBC was guaranteeing." But much of the drop Sternberg attributes to the ever increasing number of viewing choices in TV land.

NBC's take, said Falco, is that the games' performance has to be considered within the relative context of today's viewing environment. And in that context, many of the numbers look pretty good, he said. The 13.8 Sydney prime time average is 77% higher than the current 7.8 rating for regular prime time programming. The Seoul games delivered just a 22% boost to the average prime time rating in 1988.

The Today Show benefited enormously. NBC used the games to launch the show's expansion to three hours, and, during the games, the program had its fifth-highest ratings ever.

And the Olympics continue to be an unparalleled promotional platform. The games reached 185 million U.S. viewers, or three-fourths of the nation's population. "There's no other place where you can get 17 straight days that you get to tell the American people about your new prime time shows," says Falco.

Most agree that viewing seemed to be affected by the late-September start and the 15-hour time delay. There's some dispute about the impact of the Internet.

Even NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol acknowledged that the network miscalculated what he called the "September effect." With the games on a month later than usual, they had to face competition from the National Football League and down-to-the-wire pennant-race baseball games.

Ebersol also acknowledged that the network erred in starting the nighttime coverage at 7 p.m., where it had to face some strong competition from syndication shows, like Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy.

The results in Sydney may affect how the summer games in Athens, Greece-four years from now-are priced, Sternberg noted.