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CBS downplays skategate

CBS was still basking in the glory of its Winter Olympics landslide Wednesday while maintaining that the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding flap was only part of the reason.

CBS Sports prexy Neal Pilson cited the Harding angle as one of four “gold-medal” factors behind the staggering ratings performance — which, with 204 million people watching at least part of the Games during its 16-day run, eclipsed the ’92 Albertville Olympics as the most-watched ongoing event in TV history, seen by a record 84% of all potential U.S. viewers.

Pilson also pointed to CBS’ broadcast strategy, calculated to “reach out to women and the non-traditional sports audience,” as well as the strong performance of U.S. athletes and the unusual two-year lag time since the Albertville Games.

Other factors, in the “silver” and “bronze” category, were the delayed broadcast schedule (“Our competition helped us by giving results,” Pilson maintained) and frigid weather that kept viewers in the most heavily populated regions of the country indoors.

Despite those elements that were unique to Lillehammer, Pilson added that the Olympics have “reached a new level of interest” that he expects to carry over at least in part to CBS’ coverage of the ’98 Games — which will air on a six-hour delayed basis — from Nagano, Japan.

Among the sidelights to the Olympics presented by CBS/Broadcast Group senior VP of planning and research David Poltrack was an increased concentration of female viewers — up to 59% of the primetime audience, from 57% two years ago. By contrast, Poltrack said women generally comprise 40% or less of the viewing audience for other major primetime sports showcases.

Still, despite the blockbuster success of figure skating both leading up to and during the Games, Pilson maintained that the networks “have to be cautious … (and) careful not to overexpose the sport.” The exec added that he didn’t think skating would work on a weekly basis, a proposal supposedly floated at one point as a replacement for CBS’ lost NFL rights, which moves to Fox Broadcasting Co. in the fall.

CBS also hopes the huge ratings for the Olympics will carry over to programs promoted during the 16-day showcase, from CBS’ latenight and morning shows to new primetime series. “With any kind of sampling, the product has got to deliver ,” Poltrack acknowledged, while citing the compatibility of a new series like Saturday drama “The Road Home” with the female-heavy Olympic audience.

The network has had a spotty record establishing new shows coming out of such sports-related platforms, having launched such quickly forgotten series as “Scorch,””Fish Police” and “The Boys of Twilight” following the ’92 Olympics.

Because sweeps exist largely for affiliates, CBS officials were also crowing about a 64% increase for its 30 metered-market stations in local news vs. their four-week averages before the Games.

The only challenger putting up much resistance in analyzing the sweeps, meanwhile, is Fox Broadcasting Co., which managed to do a relatively good job hanging on to its core audience; despite huge numbers for the Games, Fox auds didn’t catch as severe a case of “Olympic fever” as the rest of the populace.

Fox research showed the weblet was up 3% in households and 4% among adults 18 -49 during the 16 days of the Olympics compared to its season-to-date average, compared to drops closer to 20% for both ABC and NBC. Overall, with the Olympics sucking up available viewers the three competing webs were all down 9% to 12% in households compared to the February 1993 sweeps (see related story, page 7).

Fox attributed its relatively solid performance to “the loyalty of our viewers,” having enjoyed its best success during the sweep with the Wednesday soap combo of “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Melrose Place.”

As previously noted, CBS highlights from its Olympic coverage include the sixth highest-rated broadcast since 1960 in terms of rating as well as the fourth and sixth top telecasts in terms of total audience (Daily Variety, March 2). The web will also post the largest victory margin ever during a major sweep.

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