MBPT Spotlight: Olympics Dominated Primetime, But a Few Broadcast and Cable Series Medaled

When the Olympics air on broadcast primetime they rule the airwaves—whether it’s the Summer or Winter Games—and the recent telecast from Sochi on NBC followed the same pattern, dominating viewership. But the Olympics didn’t stand alone on primetime TV, and people actually watched series on other networks that happy marketers did advertise in.

While none of the other broadcast network programming came close to beating the Sochi Games, there were some shows that produced decent enough ratings to please their advertisers.

Both Brad Adgate, senior VP, director of research at Horizon Media, and Billie Gold, VP, director of buying/programming research at Carat, point out that only a relatively small segment of the TV viewing audience actually watches Olympics coverage each night, so the rest of the audience is up for grabs. Today’s TV landscape offers so many other choices that audiences become very fragmented and viewership for the other shows can get even smaller.

“I think the broadcast networks are starting to realize that only 25% of Americans are actually tuned in and watching on any given night of the Olympics, which means 75% are up for grabs,” Gold says.

Adgate says advertisers trying to reach non-Olympics viewers, while running in programming with lower ratings, could get situations where their brands get category exclusivity in some shows, and at lower rates.

Looking at the ratings, some of the shows on the other broadcast networks vs. NBC’s two-weeks-plus primetime Olympics coverage from Sochi, Adgate says, “it wasn’t a complete disaster for them.”

On Sunday, Feb. 9, during the first weekend of Olympics coverage, CBS ran a two-and-a-half-hour tribute to The Beatles, titled The Beatles: A Grammy Salute, that attracted 14 million viewers and a 2.1 18-49 demo rating. Earlier in the night, an edition of newsmagazine 60 Minutes on CBS drew 9.4 million viewers.

The Olympics coverage that night averaged 26.3 million viewers and a 7.3 18-49 rating; however, it was beaten that night in the demo by a cable series, AMC’s The Walking Dead, which averaged an 8.2 rating. The Walking Dead also drew 15.8 million viewers. Also on that Sunday night, Bravo’s Real Housewives ofAtlanta, while not coming close to the Olympics’ numbers, still produced a solid 4.6 million viewers and a 2.1 18-49 demo rating.

Actually, The Walking Dead out-rated the Olympics coverage the following two Sundays—Feb. 16 and Feb. 23—also in the 18-49 demo and Real Housewives pulled in over 4 million viewers on each.

CBS’ Moves Took ‘Intelligence’

While not many broadcast networks chose to run regular series original episodes vs. the Olympics, CBS did on Wednesday night Feb. 19 and it paid off for the network. Criminal Minds at 9 p.m. drew 10.1 million viewers and a 2.5 18-49 demo rating, while CSI at 10 p.m. pulled in 9.8 million viewers and a 2.0 18-49 rating. For both shows, those numbers were right around their regular season averages. The Olympics that night averaged 20.2 million viewers and a 5.0 18-49 rating.

CBS also aired fresh episodes of its drama series Intelligence and it drew 7.1 million viewers and 5.9 million viewers on successive Mondays during the Olympics. Those numbers are right in the ballpark of the series’ season average.

And CBS ran repeats of its three most-watched series, sitcom The Big Bang Theory and dramas NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles. All did well vs. the Olympics, although down significantly from regular season averages. The Big Bang Theory on two successive Thursdays drew 11.8 million viewers and a 2.8 demo rating, and 10.2 million viewers and a 2.6 demo rating. NCIS averaged 9.8 million viewers and 8 million viewers in two Tuesday night airings, while NCIS: Los Angeles drew 8 million and 7.9 million in its two Tuesday shows.

NBC’s Olympics coverage actually began the night before the opening ceremonies for the first time, on Thursday night Feb. 6. The Games that night averaged 20 million viewers and a 6.0 demo rating. On that night, The Big Bang Theory drew 17.5 million and a 5.2 demo rating. Other CBS sitcoms that night with first-run episodes also drew sizable audiences. The Millers averaged 10.7 million viewers and a 2.6 demo rating, while Two and a Half Men drew 8.3 million and a 1.9 demo rating.

CBS Friday night drama Blue Bloods, which normally averages just north of 10 million viewers, averaged 6.8 million viewers for two consecutive Friday night telecasts.

On Fox, American Idol drew pretty close to its season average viewership on all the nights it aired during the Olympics, although its 18-49 ratings were down a bit more. Idol averaged about 10.3 million viewers during the Olympics with a 2.9 demo rating. While during past Summer and Winter Olympics there were a couple of nights where Idol viewership beat the Olympics, its totals during this Winter’s games was still solid.

Fox’s two highest-rated shows beyond American Idol during the Olympics were dramas Almost Human and The Following. Almost Human averaged 5.4 million viewers and a 1.6 demo rating for two telecasts, while The Following drew an average of 5 million viewers for two telecasts.

ABC’s most watched shows during the Olympics were Monday series The Bachelor and Castle. TheBachelor averaged 7.8 million viewers for two episodes and a 2.5 demo rating, just about right on its regular season average. One Monday episode of Castle leading out of The Bachelor drew 7.7 million viewers.

Hit ABC sitcom Modern Family did not fare well with repeats during the Games. Its two Wednesday night telecasts averaged 4.5 million viewers and a 1.4 demo rating.

Overall, during the period the Olympics aired, NBC averaged 21 million viewers and a 5.3 18-49 demo rating, according to Nielsen data, while CBS averaged 6 million viewers and a 1.05 demo rating, ABC averaged 3.9 million viewers and a 1.04 demo rating, while Fox averaged 2.4 million viewers per night and a 1.3 demo rating.

New, Improved

“CBS showed that if a broadcast network does put on original specials or televise original episodes, it can pull in some decent viewership vs. the Olympics,” Adgate says. “But I guess for the most part, the networks feel they only have 22 original episodes with a 36-week season, so they would rather hold those originals rather than go up against the Olympics.”

The next Summer Olympics—from Rio in Brazil—will air on NBC in 2016, so the broadcast networks have a little more than two years to decide what their strategy will be. While summer in the past has been mainly a time of repeats and reality series, based on some last summer scripted programming successes, the broadcast networks are planning to program more aggressively with original series this coming summer. 

It could well be that by the summer of 2016, NBC’s broadcast competitors will get really aggressive in programming against the Games. A lot will depend on how the next two summers play out.