August 18, 2008
No amount of begging by NBC will make it happen. The Olympics swim meet ended soon after Phelps' triumphant bid for his eighth gold medal on NBC Saturday night, with another week of competition remaining.
Interest in the Olympics is nearly certain to wane, but NBC can already claim its own medal. The games averaged 30 million prime-time viewers over its first eight nights - American Idol numbers - and NBC Universal said it has earned more than $10 million since the games began from new advertisers eager to climb on board.
It's also the first real sign that broadcast television can recover from its debilitating strike of last winter and produce an event that draws the nation together.
"Broadcast is not dead, despite reports to the contrary," said Brian Hughes, researcher for the ad buying firm Magna.
All because of one super swimmer.
Maybe not entirely, but NBC persuaded Olympics officials to start races early so they could be aired live in prime-time in the Eastern time zone, and built the network's battle plan around Phelps' bid for history. It worked out even better than expected, with two of Phelps' races having heart-stopping finishes.
Could Friday night have worked any better? NBC moved directly from showing a come-from-behind win by the leading U.S. beach volleyball team to Phelps' race. The live telecast heightened the suspense for East Coast viewers.
NBC was also able to show gymnastics live. The one drawback to the one-two finish by Americans Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson was its 1 a.m. ending.
One weak point: There's little room for flexibility in prime-time, and NBC's view that only a small number of sports deserve that special platform sometimes makes the broadcasts repetitive.
Phelps' trips to the medal stand were also repetitive, but NBC will take them any day. Barring a major catastrophe during the final week, his success in Beijing will send NBC Universal executives home smiling.
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