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Strong counterprogramming could hurt Olympic ratings

For yearstelevision networks trying to lure viewers away from the Olympics had as muchchance of success as the Jamaican bobsled team. So their programming strategywas simple: If you can't beat 'em, give up. Non-Olympic networks would dust offreruns and old movies during the Games, conceding the ratings battle for thosetwo weeks. The goal was to come home with the Nielsen silver medal.

But this timeABC, Fox and CBS believe they can strike gold while NBC and its family of cablestations air the Turin Games. Winter Olympic ratings have been declining foryears, especially when they have happened on foreign soil. The 1998 NaganoGames drew a 16.2 rating, the lowest since 1968. The number rose to 19.9 forthe 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, but it figures to dip again for Turin.

No wonder, then,that NBC finds itself under an unprecedented assault. During the Games, Foxwill run four or five original installments of the nation's No. 1 show,American Idol, as well as new episodes of the popular 24. ABC will counter withnew installments of its top series--Dancing with the Stars, DesperateHousewives, Grey's Anatomy and Lost.

CBS will show afair number of reruns, but it will try to pick off some of the male viewers whooften flip past the Games--women make up 60% of the Olympic audience--withmovies like The Bourne Identity and Terminator 3. It will also trot out freshepisodes of Survivor, something it didn't do during the 2002 Games. "Thenetworks are bringing out a lot more heavy artillery this year," says KellyKahl, scheduling chief for CBS.

One analyst,Steve Sternberg of the ad-buying firm Magna Global, predicts that AmericanIdol, which has attracted more than 30 million viewers for each of its sixepisodes this season, will outdraw the Olympics when it's not up against figureskating. At stake are millions of dollars in advertising revenue for NBC, whichpaid more than $600 million for the 2006 Olympics. If ratings during the firstweek of the Games fail to hit the marks NBC promised its advertisers, thenetwork will have to make good with clients by rerunning their commercials--forfree--in the second week.

Not everyonebelieves the Games will take a licking. "I think [ABC, CBS, Fox] are goingto find that the Olympics are going to take a serious bite out of the originalprogramming," says former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, who was aconsultant to the IOC during its negotiations with NBC for the rights to the2010 and 2012 Games. "And that their ratings for the episodes they runagainst the Olympics are well below their normal averages." Let the Gamesbegin.



ICE IDOL Fox's Cowell (below) could bite into NBC's ratings when Cohen isn't skating.