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NBC Olympic Audience Falls Short of Expectations

If the first week of Olympic Games coverage is any indication of NBC's performance in Sydney, the best the network can hope for in the race for viewers is a bronze medal. The network's carefully orchestrated tape-delayed broadcasts aren't pulling in sports fans the way live action from Atlanta did in 1996. Even the Barcelona games in 1992 attracted more viewers, according to polls conducted during the first week of the Sydney Games.

The Atlanta games drew 34.2 million viewers each evening; the Barcelona games pulled in 27.4. With an average of 25 million viewers per night, NBC is lagging even the statistics for the Seoul, Korea games in 1988, which pulled in an average of 26.4 million viewers each evening. The first four evenings of the Sydney games earned NBC a 25% market share, below the 26–27% range the network had anticipated. Advertising rates for the Olympic broadcasts were pegged to the size of the projected audience. Based on past performances, the viewership during the second week will likely follow the first, according to an analysis in the Wall Street Journal.

Advertisers reportedly paid NBC approximately $900 million for spots to be aired during the Olympics, at the rate of nine minutes per hour. NBC spent more than $700 million to broadcast the games, paid to the International Olympic Committee for the exclusive US rights. The nightly broadcasts are already saturated with commercials, but NBC may have to increase their frequency during the second week to make up for the shortfall in viewers.

The decline in interest among the viewing public is due in part to NBC's insistence on showing taped-and-edited coverage of the previous day's competitions because of the time difference between the US and Australia. Thanks to the Internet, many viewers already know the outcomes of the events they're watching. "Prepackaged games are simply not as compelling and dramatic as live events," Steve Sternberg, senior VP of True North Communications' TN Media unit, told the Wall Street Journal's Joe Flint. Viewership of the first six nights of NBC's Olympic coverage from Sydney was down 19% compared to the same period from Seoul 12 years ago, down 23% from Barcelona in 1992, and down 35% from Atlanta in 1996.

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