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NBC Wins in Games of Ratings, Reviews

Television executives often play games with ratings.

If an event gets good ratings but critics pan it, the executives will point to the ratings and say their people must have done something right, as if ratings are a barometer for the quality of coverage.

If an event gets bad ratings and also gets panned, then the executives will say the ratings have nothing to do with the quality of coverage.

NBC executives can rest easy today. Whether talking about Winter Olympics ratings or reaction from critics, it’s mostly good.

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The closing ceremony Sunday night earned a 22.3 national rating with a 33% share of the audience, pushing the prime-time average for the 17 days of coverage to a 19.2/31, 18% higher than the 16.3/26 CBS averaged for the Winter Olympics from Nagano, Japan, in 1998.

In the Pacific time zone, where the prime-time coverage was delayed, the average was a 21.6/34, and Los Angeles averaged a 19.5/30.

Sunday’s gold-medal hockey game, shown live at noon on the West Coast, got a 10.7/24 rating nationally and a 9.2/23 in L.A.

The national rating was the highest for any hockey game since 1980.

The U.S.-Soviet Union game at the Winter Olympics that year got a 23.9 and the U.S. and Finland game two days later in which the U.S. clinched the gold got a 23.2.

As for critical reviews, a headline in the Washington Post read, “For the Most Part, TV Performance was a Gold Medal Effort.” A San Francisco Examiner critic wrote, “Night after night, the prime-time show [was] can’t-miss entertainment.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said: “It proved to be a successful miniseries for NBC. It was good--often great--TV.”

If there was one moment where NBC dropped the ball, it was Thursday night at the end of the women’s figure skating, the marquee event. The complaint was the announcers didn’t make it clear exactly how Sarah Hughes won the gold medal and how Michelle Kwan ended up with the bronze.

Dan Patrick and partner Rob Dibble were discussing that point on ESPN Radio Monday. Patrick said he was confused, while, oddly, Dibble thought it was pretty clear.

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Whatever, the up-close pictures of Hughes and her coach made it obvious to viewers who won the gold, even if they were confused how she did it.

Overall, what was good about NBC’s coverage was that it was event-driven, well-edited and there was a minimum of studio chit-chat. There were fewer up-close profiles, and the ones NBC did show seemed less intrusive than the ones at previous Olympics.

NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said, “I think the greatest thing I learned from these Games was that I had a lot to learn about listening.

“Following Sydney, which I felt from the production end was well done, I came back and listened, particularly to my friends. I read back over a lot of the writers that I respect and saw their viewpoint.

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“From that point, we planned accordingly to evolve the way we do the Games to a more event-driven series of telecasts.

“That wasn’t as simple as it sounds because we had to also really work much more closely with our announcers, because storytelling is still the key to the Olympics. We had to find a way to have them deliver much more of the storytelling through their commentary than as feature material.

“I really did learn a lot about listening and I think that will carry over to subsequent Olympics.”

In past Olympics, even before e-mail, the complaints would pour into The Times from viewers--about everything from the delays to short shrift for some sports to the overabundance of the up-close features to you name it.

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The complaints this time were held to a minimum. Sure, you’re not going to please everyone, but NBC seemed to come pretty close.

There weren’t even many complaints about the delayed coverage on the West Coast. Actually, a number of people said they appreciated the fact the coverage didn’t begin until they could get home, eat dinner and then sit down in front of the television set.

Not even the commercials drew many complaints.

“I think it’s important that so many sponsors of these Games went out of their way to come out with creative ads that was interesting and applicable to the Olympics,” Ebersol said. “It made the commercial flow a lot easier to deal with I think.”

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About the Salt Lake Games in general, Ebersol said: “They are far and away the best I’ve ever been involved in. It’s hard for me to say that, because I would have told you three years ago that it never would have turned out that way.

“This surpassed my wildest expectations.”

From a viewer’s standpoint, or a critic’s, the same thing could be said about NBC’s coverage.


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