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How competing networks will counterprogram NBC's Olympics

By Stephanie Goldberg, CNN
updated 12:13 PM EDT, Fri July 27, 2012
NBC reportedly shelled out $1.18 billion for the U.S. rights to air the London Olympics.
NBC reportedly shelled out $1.18 billion for the U.S. rights to air the London Olympics.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • With new original programs, other networks will likely draw a substantial audience
  • TV, pop culture expert: Even the Olympics needs compelling storylines to nab viewers
  • NBC's rivals won't "roll over and play dead" because they have schedules to promote for fall

(CNN) -- Unlike NBC, other TV networks aren't hoping to attract more than 200 million viewers as the London Olympics unfolds throughout the next 16 days.

That said, they're certainly not going to make the ratings game any easier on the National Broadcasting Company, which reportedly shelled out $1.18 billion for the U.S. rights to air the games. (That's about $286 million more than they paid in 2008.)

"One of TV's first great reality shows," the Olympics used to be one of the few original programs to air during the summer, said Ron Simon, a curator at the Paley Center for Media. Back then, there was hardly any effort to counter program.

Now, with competition shows such as CBS's "Big Brother," ABC's "Bachelor Pad" and Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance" -- not to mention scripted cable dramas such as "Burn Notice" and "The Closer" that often pull in up to 6 million viewers -- other networks could likely draw a substantial audience during the Olympics.

It can be challenging for any series to go up against the Olympics, Simon said, but "there is the possibility that if there's not compelling storylines for the Olympics, there are some real interesting shows out there (for people to watch)."

One thing is for sure: Cable TV isn't holding back.

Beloved dramas such as AMC's "Breaking Bad," TNT's "The Closer" and DirecTV's "Damages," which have all embarked on their final seasons, are surely hoping for steady ratings throughout the games.

"Cable is going about business as usual," said Robert J. Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "There are a lot of table scraps to be gotten."

The No. 1 reason broadcast networks "don't want to completely roll over and play dead during the Olympics," Thompson said, is because they have schedules they want to promote for fall.

This is a really important time for networks to be promoting new shows, he said, which is why NBC plans to premiere pilot episodes for "Go On" and "Animal Practice" directly after Olympic coverage on August 8 and 12, respectively.

"The real value of the Olympics is to use it as a venue to promote the upcoming season," Thompson said.

In total, 211 million viewers in the U.S. tuned in to the 2008 Beijing Olympics (with about 27 million people tuning in each day), making it the most-viewed TV event to date, according to Nielsen Media Research.

But that's not always the case. Between viewers' fascination with Beijing, the "magical" opening ceremony and compelling personal storylines, the 2008 games had a lot going for it, Simon said.

"It goes back to the old network formula," Simon added. "You need the compelling personality and the storylines. And that sort of has to develop. Obviously four years ago, there were great numbers because of one person, Michael Phelps, and the series of events and expectations around him."

It's too early to tell if subsequent plots -- such as Phelps becoming the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time or Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt's record 100- and 200-meter dash times -- will develop at the London Games. Though there's already a good deal of buzz surrounding athletes such as 17-year-old swimmer Missy Franklin and 16-year-old gymnast Gabby Douglas.

"Both Bolt and Phelps are back, but they're sort of not what they once were," Simon said. "You're going to have to look for other people that not only are fantastic within their individual sports, but that can create that storyline."

Even NBC seems unsure of what to expect, given the network's conflicting statements regarding its expectations.

"I know this is going to stun you, but I think these Olympics will be huge," Alan Wurtzel, NBC's president of research, said in a conference call with reporters via The Salt Lake Tribune. "Without question, they're going to dominate 17 nights of prime time. I believe they will rank in the Top Five of the most-watched events in television history, with north of 200 million viewers."

Meanwhile, NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus said at a June news conference, via Forbes: "I would love to match those scenarios, though it's unlikely. We are not measuring ourselves against Beijing."

Despite garnering respectable ratings during the U.S. trials, it's difficult to predict how many people will tune in once the Olympics are underway. And while NBC will likely take home a gold medal in the ratings game, other networks shouldn't be counted out of the games.

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