Why So Few Are Watching the Games

Italian skater Barbara Fusar Poli stares at her dancing partner, Maurizio Margaglio. i

Italian skater Barbara Fusar Poli stares at her dance partner, Maurizio Margaglio, after the performance in which they fell, Feb. 19, 2006. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images
Italian skater Barbara Fusar Poli stares at her dancing partner, Maurizio Margaglio.

Italian skater Barbara Fusar Poli stares at her dance partner, Maurizio Margaglio, after the performance in which they fell, Feb. 19, 2006.

Getty Images

NBC is putting on a brave front, saying it's happy with TV audiences so far at the Winter Olympics. But the numbers aren't good, no matter how you dissect them. Average ratings are well behind the Salt Lake City games four years ago. A bunch of plausible theories are in circulation about what's happening. One — TV audiences for major sports events are tailing off overall, not just for the Olympics. With so many choices on television, and so many sports choices as well, no single event will command a massive audience, with the exception of the Super Bowl

Another explanation, favored by TV writers, is the American Idol. effect. The Olympics can't simply walk over the TV competition this year. Not when they're up against Simon and the wannabes, Desperate Housewives, and the hospital soap opera Grey's Anatomy. A Wall Street Journal editorial argues that the Olympics aren't as compelling anymore because they lack the geopolitical rivalries of the Cold War. So there's nothing comparable to the bloody water polo match in 1956 between Hungary and the Soviet Union or the 1980 Miracle on Ice.

Okay, there's no epic political standoff at the Turin Olympics, but what about good old-fashioned personal animosity? It's clear that American speed skaters Chad Hedrick and Shani Davis don't like each other a bit. And did you happen to catch the ice dancing on Sunday? Italian Maurizio Margaglio lost his balance and stumbled while holding his partner, Barbara Fusar Poli. She gave him a withering, disdainful look and ignored him ostentatiously for the rest of the evening. That frosty stare down gives new meaning to the term "Cold War."

Another theory about the mediocre ratings — one makes that sense to me — is that people are becoming less tolerant of watching big events on tape delay. Information moves instantly today and any attempt to pretend otherwise seems increasingly ludicrous. When NBC's own Olympic Web site gives results in real time, when you can get them fresh over your cell phone or on other TV networks or NPR for that matter, it's a stretch for NBC to say, watch tonight and find out what happened. Hate to break it to you, Mr. Costas, I already know. And so do millions of others.

If you haven't sealed yourself in a news-free bubble, you know the results of the big events when prime time rolls along. You can't pretend you don't. So you start watching for feuds or crashes, or maybe you watch in appreciation of elite athletic performance. That's great, but the crossover maneuver in speed skating just isn't one of those unifying American moments in TV. No wonder American Idol is such a formidable competitor to the Olympics. At least we don't know the winner in advance.

Here's a suggestion for NBC: Show the best events live. If not on NBC itself, then on the NBC cable siblings providing Olympics coverage. NBC is already doing that with one of the most popular events — ice hockey. So why not do the same with skiing and figure skating and all the rest? It's getting harder and harder to play make believe.

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