Opening ceremonies strong; canceled downhill downer

CBS’ coverage of the 1998 Winter Olympics got off to a strong ratings start with Friday’s opening ceremonies, but things went downhill in a hurry when Saturday’s marquee skiing event was snowed out and the night’s ratings tumbled to the lowest for primetime Olympics coverage in nearly 10 years.

Preliminary nationals for Saturday show CBS salvaging a 12.2 rating, 21 share out of a night largely dependent on the men’s downhill race, which was scrubbed due to snow and fog. It’s the lowest Olympics rating since the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Winter Games settled for a 9.9/17.

Things looked a lot more encouraging on Friday, when the opening ceremonies lit up a 17.0/28, up 17% from the opening-ceremonies rating of the 1992 Albertville Games, and, as expected, down 19% from the ’94 Lillehammer opening, when the Tonya-Nancy affair caused Olympic interest to soar.

Lowest number since ’88

There’s no fair comparison for this year’s Saturday numbers, since this is the first recent Winter Olympics to start competition on the low-viewership night of Saturday, and the snowed-out skiing left CBS with little to cover except snowboarding and moguls preliminaries. Given all those factors, it’s probably not surprising that CBS managed barely 40% of the 29.4/41 for the first day of competition (a Sunday) at Lillehammer and fell to the worst Olympics number since ’88.

CBS has reportedly guaranteed advertisers a 19.7 average rating for these Olympics, and the Saturday 12.2 would cast some doubt on the Eye’s ability to meet that impressive figure. The opening-ceremony number, though, suggests the 19.7 is realistic. In ’92 and ’94, opening-ceremony rating repped about 75-80% of what the Olympics as a whole would eventually average. If CBS can maintain that ratio this time (the Saturday drop makes it less likely), the Eye would be headed toward roughly a 22 rating for the Nagano games.

CBS will be watching closely to see if its numbers recover quickly from the Saturday snow-out or will now suffer some longer-term loss of momentum. The men’s downhill has been re-skedded for live broadcast Tuesday, when it’ll be teamed with the pairs figure skating finals in what shapes up to be a formidable night.

Even with the Saturday disappointment, CBS still won that night solidly, and with sizable increases over its season averages for the night — up 62% in adults 25-54 to a 7.6 rating, up 59% in adults 18-49 to a 6.2 and up 42% in households to a 12.2.

NBC stays competitive

Saturday’s metered-market overnights show NBC running a competitive 6 shares behind CBS’ Olympics, averaging an 8.1/13 with its “Bloopers,” “The Pretender” and “Profiler,” vs. CBS’ metered-market 11.5/19. Fox (6.8/11) and ABC (5.1/8) trailed.

Nielsen estimates 56 million U.S. viewers watched at least part of Friday’s opening ceremonies. By that measure (which is influenced by the inflation of ongoing population increases), it was the second-most-watched opening ceremonies behind only the 64 million of 1994. The estimate for Saturday’s telecast was 48 million.

The Friday preliminary nationals show CBS more than doubling its season averages for that night in homes and adults 18-49 and 25-54, while also more than doubling each competing network in adults 18-49.

In that demo, CBS marched to an 8.4/23 vs. ABC’s and Fox’s 3.9/11 and NBC’s 3.8/11. NBC’s “Passenger 57″ (7.3/12 in homes) landed the night’s biggest surprise, dumping usual slot winner “20/20″ (8.1/14 in homes) into third at 10-11 p.m. in adults 18-49.

Friday’s results also reflected the greater young-adults competition CBS faced, compared with past opening-ceremonies telecasts. The Eye’s Friday average in adults 18-49 (an 8.4 rating) repped just 49% of its household rating (17.0), down compared with the 56% figure on opening-ceremonies night in 1994 and the 61% in 1992 (in both cases with Saturday telecasts, when competition for young-adult audiences was weaker than on current Fridays).

Fox’s ‘Ice’ breaks through

In final national results for Thursday, Fox got an Olympics boost of its own from the “Breaking the Ice” spec featuring Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding (9.8/15 in homes, 6.5/16 in adults 18-49). “Breaking” scored Fox’s best Thursday 18-49 rating, excepting baseball, since Oct. 28, 1993. These were also the highest 18-49 marks for any skating special since NBC’s Pro Figure Skating Championships Jan. 28, 1995.

Against that competition, NBC’s much-touted Ted Danson guest shot on “Veronica’s Closet” settled for that series’ lowest firstrun 18-49 share to date, a 31 (which was still enough to win the half-hour by 14 shares). NBC took the night over Fox by 14 shares in homes and 19 in adults 18-49.

Each household rating point represents an estimated 980,000 homes, or 1% of the country’s TV homes. Each adults 18-49 rating point reps 1.23 million viewers, 1% of the U.S. total. A share is the same sort of percentage, except it’s measured against only the homes or viewers watching TV during the timeslot involved.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more