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NBC: Way down under

The U.S. women's soccer team's tie with China during the first weekend of the Summer Olympics was a signature of the Games thus far: no dramatic victory of American athletes to fire U.S. viewers' imaginations.

So the Sydney Games could become NBC's giveback games, with the lowest-ever average ratings at 14.6, more than a full ratings point below guarantees the network provided advertisers going in. If NBC's numbers don't bounce back to around 16 for household ratings, advertisers will win some free spots from the network during the second week of the medals competition.

NBC had its contingency plan built in, selling nine minutes of time per hour vs. the 9.5 minutes that ran each hour during the 1996 Atlanta Games. That leeway will enable NBC to provide makegoods for ratings shortfalls during the final week in Sydney without cluttering its coverage with ads, according to an NBC source.

A CBS spokeswoman declined to comment on makegoods. In a prepared statement, NBC said, "We'll be able to take care of our advertisers without affecting either the quality of the broadcast or the bottom line."

The Sydney, Australia, setting put NBC Sports up against it from the outset, after it paid $705 million for the broadcast rights; historically, Asia-based Olympics have been poor viewer draws.

Despite drawing a cumulative audience of 132 million viewers through the first five days, the 14.6 national homes average in Nielsen ratings for Sydney put the Games 10% behind the 16.2 average for the previous taped Summer Games, from Barcelona in 1992 and Seoul in 1988. Its fifth night of coverage last Tuesday did produce a 17.8 rating and a 28 share in fast nationals from Nielsen. MSNBC chipped in a 1.0 and CNBC a 0.5 rating in weekend coverage.

CBS ratings guru David Poltrack says the ratings are consistent with internal projections CBS made when it bid on the Sydney Games. He suggests that the root of the Olympics ratings slump may lie in the reality-TV mania over CBS' Survivor and Big Brother, which may have diverted interest from the Olympics trials when viewers might have gotten acquainted with the athletes. "The Olympics had to share the media stage with Survivor," says Poltrack.

Now, Poltrack points out, NBC must hope that track and field-not a top audience draw-can turn the ratings tide after swimming and gymnastics failed to generate their customary ratings spark.

But observers agree that the sudden rise of a recognizable U.S. star on the scene would dramatically alter the picture. "It's too early to write these Olympics off," says independent TV-sports consultant Neal Pilson. "The great American hero is still to emerge."

If a big U.S. star like Marion Jones or Michael Johnson does shine in Sydney, the time-zone difference could still dampen interest among fans, who'll find out the results online, and elsewhere, before the taped prime time telecasts. "Viewers would need to live in a cave to not know the results before tuning in nightly," says John Rash, senior vice president and director, broadcast negotiations, for Campbell Methun Esty.

But Rash points out that the audience share is still strong, despite the shortfall.

"Of course, it's a disappointment when you expect something and you get a result below that," says Charles Rutman, executive vice president and managing director for Carat USA. However, he adds, the Games are still "a good platform."

Rutman puts the Sydney slump in the context of declining TV viewership for major TV sports, including the NFL.