CBS on Way to Olympics Ratings Gold : Television: The Winter Games are proving to be a winner as the network heads for the highest ratings for any Olympics. The Harding-Kerrigan drama is only part of the appeal.


Even before the final chapter in “Skategate,” the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan soap opera, the 1994 Winter Olympics have brought ratings gold to CBS.

Record numbers of viewers have been tuning in to the Winter Games from Lillehammer, Norway, and CBS is on its way to achieving the highest ratings for any Olympics, network executives said Wednesday.

“During the first week of the Olympics, CBS had its highest rating ever in the history of the network,” said David Poltrack, vice president in charge of audience research. “We are currently pacing at a level that will give us an Olympics ratings record, whether for Summer or Winter Olympics.”


Through the first 10 days of the Winter Games, the network has averaged nearly a 26 rating in prime time (which translates to more than 24 million homes). The previous record for that period was ABC’s 23.6 rating for the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid, which featured the surprise win by the U.S. hockey team.

CBS said that, at mid-point, some 170 million viewers had tuned in to watch at least some of its extensive Winter Olympics coverage, with the much-anticipated competition between Harding and Kerrigan still to come.


As for why people have been watching in such great numbers, CBS executives could only guess. They acknowledged that the massive international publicity surrounding Harding and Kerrigan aided them in the ratings, but they noted that people wouldn’t be watching this much if that was the only thing that interested them--especially since the women’s figure skating didn’t get under way until Wednesday night and was to continue Friday night.

“We were obviously given a great tune-in audience by the Harding-Kerrigan controversy, but the fact that we’ve held that audience night after night means that people are satisfied with what they’re seeing,” said George Schweitzer, vice president in charge of marketing for CBS. “We emphasized that the Olympics are about human stories, and we talked about Dan Jansen, Bonnie Blair” and other U.S. athletes.

CBS designed its prime-time broadcasts by studying the coverage from the Albertville Olympics in 1992, analyzing which events were most popular with viewers. Figure skating, for example, is very popular with women, and so there has been skating nearly every night. And the demographics for the 1994 Olympics are running about 60% female, CBS executives said.

Television ratings for the Olympics also are running high in other countries, according to the U.S. Olympic Committee, which may lend credence to the “global water cooler” theory that, with fewer major attractions to bind them, people in the United States and around the globe are enjoying being part of an international event that they know the whole world is watching.


The record ratings for CBS are not directly paying off financially, however, because the network had sold commercial time this year based on an 18.6 rating. So it’s the advertisers who are benefiting by getting the additional viewership at no additional cost.

But CBS was able to sell a few 30-second spots that had been held back in case it got a lower rating than had been promised and had to make up the difference to an advertiser. The cost for one of those spots in women’s figure skating? About $430,000--compared to the average $325,000 paid by sponsors who paid in advance.

The bigger payoff for CBS will come when it begins to sell commercials for the 1998 Winter Olympics, because those prices will be based on the ratings garnered this time out.

Some viewers and TV critics have criticized CBS for excessively “cross-promoting” the Olympics on various programs, but the strategy apparently has worked, not only in terms of the Olympics ratings but in ratings for the other shows. “CBS This Morning” is expected to beat “Today” and “Good Morning America” for the first time ever in the ratings this week, the “CBS Evening News” jumped from its usual third position to a strong second last week, and David Letterman’s ratings last week were the highest since the week his show premiered.