MEDIA WATCH: NBC feels the agony of defeat over Olympic ratings

NBC paid dollars 705 million for the rights to broadcast the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. However, the network found itself in a quandary as it struggled to reach audiences. The ratings are reportedly the lowest in 32 years (Daily Variety, September 28).

NBC paid dollars 705 million for the rights to broadcast the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. However, the network found itself in a quandary as it struggled to reach audiences. The ratings are reportedly the lowest in 32 years (Daily Variety, September 28).

NBC paid dollars 705 million for the rights to broadcast the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. However, the network found itself in a quandary as it struggled to reach audiences. The ratings are reportedly the lowest in 32 years (Daily Variety, September 28).

CARMA International analyzed the coverage to learn what had gone wrong.

The media offered no shortage of reasons: the time change between Australia and the US; the fact that the summer Olympics are being held in the fall; too many melodramatic profiles of athletes, not enough coverage of events; results reported more quickly by competing media outlets; and a lackluster performance by American athletes. While disputing some of these reasons, NBC Sports VP Kevin Sullivan admitted 'an amazing confluence of events' had kept ratings from being higher (San Jose Mercury News, September 25).

The most frequently cited cause was NBC's decision to delay its broadcasts until prime time. In most cases, events were being broadcast at least 15 hours after medals had already been awarded. Thoughts expressed in The Hartford Courant (September 24) were typical of the coverage analyzed: 'NBC made a big mess for itself when executives decided not to broadcast the competitions live, but to run the tape during prime evening hours.

By the time the coverage airs, most fans know the results.'

Some articles identified that the ratings were below what NBC had guaranteed its advertisers. The Los Angeles Times (September 28) reported that Nike was upset with the network: 'We're definitely disappointed. The fact that they're not delivering viewers is very much a financial concern for us.

We want commercial time down the line or we want our money back.'

Several articles provided coverage of NBC's attempts to rectify the situation by providing 'make-up' commercial time to advertisers. However, while this solution may resolve NBC's financial obligations, it did not appear to win over the media. Reacting to NBC's plans, Salt Lake City's Deseret News (September 27) wrote, 'If they have any more commercials than they already have, Bob Costas will have to say, 'We'll return to our commercials after this Olympic break.''

Some of the harshest criticism was directed at NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol. New York Daily News (September 24) commented, 'Perhaps the most interesting Olympic event ... is the spinning that Ebersol has done about ratings that weren't what he promised to his advertisers, or his own network.

No one forced NBC to present Sydney this way. Ebersol and his lieutenants have done it by choice.'

Ebersol defended himself and his decisions in Newsweek (October 2). He maintained that the delayed coverage was the right decision because there would be only a minuscule audience if the coverage were broadcast live.

'I don't have any doubt in my bones that airing these Olympics entirely on tape was the right thing to do,' he said.

For NBC, the Sydney Olympics appears to have been a financial disappointment and a public relations disaster. The network would do well to learn from the experience; it has already spent dollars 3 billion for the broadcast rights to the next four Summer and Winter Games.

- Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.



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