NBC uses Olympics to lure back lost audience

Wed Feb 17, 2010 6:09pm EST
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By Jill Serjeant

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - NBC's costly gamble on the Vancouver Winter Olympics is leaving a hole in its finances but strong ratings offer a welcome showcase for the struggling TV network's revamped prime-time line-up, media analysts say.

Some 138 million people have watched the first five days of the Vancouver games on NBC Universal's networks -- a 22 percent increase on average viewership at the same stage of the last Winter Olympics in Torino in 2006.

Fox television's ratings juggernaut "American Idol" stole some of NBC's thunder on Tuesday night, beating its prime-time Olympics coverage into second place by about 23.6 million to 20.3 million viewers, according to early data on Wednesday.

But for NBC, which has said it will lose about $250 million on televising the Vancouver games, the payoff could come later if Americans get back into the forgotten habit of simply turning on NBC for its prime-time shows.

NBC has languished at the bottom of the four big U.S. TV networks for more than four years and has scrambled to find new dramas and comedies to please audiences. Moreover, it must now fill the gaping 10 p.m. weekday hole left by its failed experiment with "The Jay Leno Show," which ended last week.

Many of its new shows, including a Jerry Seinfeld comedy venture "The Marriage Ref" and family drama series "Parenthood," debut in March and are being heavily promoted to Winter Olympics viewers between ice-dancing and speed skating.

"I think they have made the most of the opportunity they had. They timed this well for the potential to really promote these replacement shows," said David Bank, media analyst with RBC Capital Markets.

"They are positioning their shows really well for a first look. The question is, will they have the legs to stand on their own? And the answer to that is unclear," Bank said.   Continued...

<p>Gold medalist Hannah Kearney (R) of the United States and silver medalist Jennifer Heil of Canada celebrate after the women's freestyle skiing moguls finals on Cypress Mountain at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, February 13, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Blake</p>