Olympics fall short on TV

While CBC is portraying its coverage of this year's Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia as a ratings triumph, some media buyers aren't quite so sure....

While CBC is portraying its coverage of this year’s Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia as a ratings triumph, some media buyers aren’t quite so sure.

The final figures are still being tabulated. But early results indicate that average viewership fell short of projections by about 10%, says Sherry O’Neil, vice-president and director of television buying with Toronto-based OMD Canada, whose clients include Chrysler Canada and Shoppers Drug Mart.

O’Neil attributes this mainly to the disappointing performance of Canada’s athletes in Sydney.

This poor showing also led to a good deal of negative press coverage, she says, which didn’t do much to create a favourable atmosphere for advertisers.

‘It wasn’t a big, warm and fuzzy event. If your team doesn’t perform well, and the [media] coverage is about lack of medals, lack of funding and drugs, that isn’t necessarily a very positive, upbeat environment.’

In its agreements with advertisers, CBC guaranteed pre-determined audience levels for every spot slated to air during the Games. If there was any shortfall, the network – which also handled sales for Canada’s other Olympic broadcaster, the specialty channel TSN – pledged to provide additional airtime to make up the difference.

O’Neil says that as soon as OMD saw the preliminary numbers, the agency began requesting compensation.

CBC, however, considers its Olympic broadcasts to have been a success. ‘We’re really pleased with the performance,’ says Betty Chiu, the network’s executive director of marketing.

According to CBC’s figures, its coverage averaged 1.386 million viewers in prime time during the first week of the Games – not far off the 1.427 million that tuned in to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

This despite the fact that – due to the time difference between here and Sydney – many high-profile events (including the finals in the men’s 100-metre dash) took place in the wee hours of the morning.

However, some indications are that viewership began to drop off in the second week, after Canadian athletes washed out in a number of medal categories.

If the final results indicate that CBC’s Olympics coverage under-delivered, then advertisers will be properly compensated, Chiu says. ‘At the end of the day, if we are really short, we will take care of them.’

CTV, meanwhile, is claiming to have come through the Olympics a winner in its own right. The network adopted an aggressive counter-programming stance against CBC’s Olympic coverage, airing the critically acclaimed HBO drama series The Sopranos nightly at 10 p.m. throughout the Games.

According to figures cited by CTV, the mob saga won hands-down, averaging more than 2.1 million viewers a night in that slot, versus 1.7 million for CBC. (The network also reports that its broadcasts of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire and Wheel of Fortune produced higher daily numbers than the Olympics during the final week of the Games.)

‘It’s not so much people making a choice between the Olympics and The Sopranos,’ says Rick Lewchuk, vice-president of program planning and promotion at CTV. ‘The vast majority [who tuned in to the series] are probably people who are inherently more interested in watching dramatic programming than they are in watching the Olympics.’

CTV’s strategy was definitely a shrewd one, says David Cairns, general manager of Carat Canada in Toronto. ‘I think there was some good counter-programming, particularly with The Sopranos.’