Baltimore TV soaks up the Phelps-Hoff splash
Michael Phelps with an American flag and his gold medal after the men's 4 x 200 freestyle relay. Roughly a quarter of the Baltimore viewing market has tuned in to NBC's prime-time Olympics coverage. (Getty Images / August 13, 2008)
On average, nearly 275,000 Baltimore-area homes have been tuned in to NBC's prime-time Olympics coverage - roughly a quarter of the entire viewing market.
Of homes where the television was actually turned on, more than 40 percent have been watching Phelps and his fellow Olympians.
On Tuesday night, as Phelps was winning his fifth gold medal of these Games and 11th overall, nearly 440,000 Baltimore-area homes were tuned in.
Those numbers might not be the highest ever earned locally for a sporting event. When CBS carried the Ravens' win in Super Bowl XXXV in 2001, the broadcast earned a 43 rating.
But the Super Bowl was a one-day event. NBC and its local affiliate, WBAL, have been getting impressive ratings for six straight days. The Olympics won't be over until Aug. 24, and Phelps still has three days of racing left (his last expected event, the 4x100 medley relay, will be broadcast Saturday night).
"Those are not Super Bowl numbers, but for August, they are through the roof," said Douglas Gomery, scholar in residence at the University of Maryland's Library of American Broadcasting. "In this fragmented universe, for the Summer Olympics to get a 25 rating is unbelievable.
"Now you're talking American Idol and Oscars and Super Bowl - the few events left that can gather tens of millions of Americans around a television set at the same time."
Baltimoreans aren't the only ones watching - numbers are up nationally as well. The average rating for the Olympics through Tuesday was 17.8, higher than the opening days of the 2000 Sydney and 2004 Athens games. Viewership Monday night, according to figures provided by NBC, averaged 34 million, with a rating roughly 9 percent better than Athens.
"We know the ratings for TV spike when Michael appears," Alan Wurtzel, president of research for NBC Universal, said in a telephone news conference yesterday. "There's no question he's the dominant story. He's a great driver of Olympic interest. But what we're finding is that people might come to see Michael Phelps, but they stay to see lots of other Olympic content."
"He's the reason for NBC's great ratings success," Gomery said of Phelps. "TV is built on the star system, and he's the star of these Olympics. ... If he had lost a couple of these races, it would be a very different story today for our interest in the Olympics and NBC. Right now, he's beyond a star. He's the most famous person in the world - Michael Phelps of North Baltimore!"
The ratings are welcome news for an industry faced with a fragmented viewing audience and declining ad revenue. Officials at WBAL, which has long been battled WJZ, Channel 13, for local ratings dominance, can appreciate the boost those numbers provide.
"We knew that these Olympics would be special," said Jordan Wertlieb, WBAL's president and CEO. "The combination of the Michael Phelps and [fellow Baltimore Olympian] Katie Hoff aspect, and the intrigue of Beijing, we knew interest would be really high. But this has exceeded expectations."
For the Olympics' first five days, WBAL earned a 25.2 rating, the highest in the country. Tuesday from 10:15 to 10:30 p.m., while Phelps was swimming the opening leg of the 4x200 freestyle relay, WBAL had a 38.9 rating, 53.2 share.
Ratings measure the percentage of households with televisions watching a particular program; each ratings point in the Baltimore market translates to roughly 11,000 homes. Share is the percentage of televisions in use that are tuned to a particular program.
Local TV fans are clearly taking notice. For the first five days of the Olympics, when they're on, the other local stations might just as well be broadcasting dead air.
Friday's opening ceremonies earned a 24.1 rating, 800 percent higher than the nearest competition. Tuesday night, when Phelps won two gold medals, the prime-time coverage averaged a 29.4 rating, more than seven times the nearest competition and nearly twice the rating for all other local network programming combined.
Granted, interest in the Olympics is always high, and this year is proving no exception. NBC's prime-time coverage is averaging a 22.9 rating in the nation's top 20 markets, and last week's three highest-rated programs were, in order, the Games' opening ceremonies (35 million viewers), Sunday competition (32 million) and Saturday competition (24 million).
But in Baltimore, especially, ratings for this year's Olympics are showing a serious growth spurt when compared with the 2004 Athens Games. Ratings for the opening ceremonies were up 38 percent over 2004, while prime time numbers so far are up 61 percent.
NBC officials were understandably nervous as the Olympics approached, concerned whether the ratings would validate the $894 million they spent for broadcast rights to the Games.
Swimming is always a major draw, and it was clear that Phelps' pursuit of Mark Spitz's 36-year-old record of winning seven golds in a single Olympics could prove the Games' marquee attraction. So they pressured Beijing organizers to schedule swimming finals in the early morning, making it possible to air them live back in the States.
Wertlieb says WBAL has tried to ensure that local viewers know exactly when hometown favorites Phelps and Hoff will be racing. Thousands of visitors to the wbaltv.com Web site signed up to be notified via text message when either of the two North Baltimore Aquatic Club alumni swims.
"This has been one of the busiest weeks I think I've ever experienced," Wertlieb said. "Honestly, the only Olympic Games I can remember where a story captured a local market's interest like this was Nancy Kerrigan in Boston, back in 1994."
For their part, NBC officials realize they've happened upon something extraordinary - and not just in terms of the athletic competition. "I really believe now it's fair to say that this Olympics has become a really significant cultural event that the country is sharing," says NBC's Wurtzel. "And, honestly, you almost never get that in this day of fractionalized audiences and fractionalized media.
"There are very few events that everybody seems to share and want to talk about. I think it's extraordinary, and I don't think you will see too many more of these things in our future."