Faster, higher, Webbier

THE TURIN OLYMPICS DREW the lowest ratings of any such Games in almost four decades -- at least on TV. On the Internet, the Olympics drew more viewers than ever. So the challenge for NBC, which televised the Games and has the broadcast rights to the Olympics through at least 2012, is clear: Unless it wants to lose another ratings battle to "America's Funniest Home Videos," the network needs to learn how to harness the growing enthusiasm for the online version of the Games. And then it can decide whether that lesson applies to other programming as well.

Before proclaiming "TV is dead, long live the new TV," keep in mind that the average audience for the television broadcasts was 20 million, while the website attracted 1.5 million people on its best day. Nevertheless, the trends point to both the risks and the opportunity emerging not just for NBC but for the entire TV industry.

First, TV networks can't keep events secret, even if they happen half a world away. NBC presented many tape-delayed Olympic events as suspenseful dramas, but news outlets online and on cable had already given away the endings. The lack of mystery drained some of the entertainment value for people with only a casual interest in the events. That's one reason the prime-time Olympics lured so few viewers away from hit shows on other networks, such as Fox's "American Idol" or ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," which walloped the Games in the ratings. Meanwhile, Olympic fans were getting an immediate fix from the Web.

Second, Olympic events often have distinct audiences. The vast majority of people who tune in for ice dancing, for example, are going to switch to "American Idol" -- or even a test pattern -- when curling comes on. That's a problem for broadcast TV but not for a website or a cable TV video-on-demand service. As the music industry has learned, dividing a product into segments creates more chances to attract an audience. Why shouldn't the Olympics be sliced and diced as well? The networks are experimenting with online distribution already, selling episodes of several popular shows on the Internet right after they air and offering downloadable segments of their news programs. The Summer Olympics in 2008 in Beijing could be a proving ground for more such approaches.

Third, networks have been reluctant to put valuable programming on the Internet before it hits the airwaves for fear of losing TV advertising revenue. But advertisers follow viewers, and they're spending more and more each year to sponsor video online.

More important, the networks don't have much choice. With digital technologies giving viewers more options and control than ever before, the key for companies such as NBC isn't to drag people back to their couches during prime time. It's finding a way to deliver programming when and where people want it.

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