Imagine that you work for a network that purchased the broadcast rights to a 17-day athletic event. You win the ratings on 16 of those days and garner numbers just about equal to the combined ratings of your two nearest competitors. It is the third most-watched event in the history of television. You make somewhere between $20 million and $40 million in profits for your employer.
Yet your coverage is widely deemed a failure.Although this sounds like "The Twilight Zone," this is the situation that CBS found itself in with the recently completed Winter Olympics. It's not that the ratings were bad, it's just that they weren't as good as expected.
CBS guaranteed advertisers a 19.6 rating on average. It ended up delivering about a 16.2. And it found itself having to air "free" advertisements to make up for the shortfall, which cut into the network's profits - expected before the Games to be in the neighborhood of $60 million.
And CBS' coverage was far from perfect. Some of the problems were unavoidable - like the weather that kept canceling ski races - and some were of the network's own making.
There are a lot of theories about why these Games failed to live up to expectations - the continued erosion of network viewership; the increased availability of winter sports coverage, making the Winter Games less of an event; the early exit of the American men's hockey team; the lack of compelling stories in Nagano.
But the one problem that proved worse than anyone anticipated was the enormous time difference between Japan and the United States - a difference that ranged from 14 hours on the East Coast to 17 Hours on the West Coast. "That just killed us," said a CBS spokesman.
Americans have become accustomed to watching tape-delayed Olympics - from the European Winter Games in France in 1992 and Norway in 1994 to the domestic Summer Games in Atlanta in 1996. But none of those had the problems of Nagano.
For example, the results of the women's figure skating finals were available in the afternoon paper, long before CBS' prime-time replay. Heck, the results were available on morning TV and radio broadcasts half a day before CBS put the competition on the air.
And the argument that CBS should have carried the events live is specious - live at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning?
Before the Nagano Games, a CBS executive criticized the IOC for selling out the Salt Lake Organizing Committee - accepting a non-competitive bid of $545 million from NBC without allowing any other network to even make an offer.
"They basically gave it away, and we're sitting here with economic models that say Salt Lake City is more valuable than Sydney," said David Poltrack, CBS executive vice president of planning and research. (And NBC paid $705 million for the 2002 Summer Games in Sydney.)
And CBS isn't backing off from that, even given the under-performance in Nagano.
"These Games have been successful. It's just that expectations were too high," Poltrack said. "And Salt Lake City is going to be far more successful than Nagano just because of where it is."
Even given the recent results, would CBS have paid more than $545 million for Utah's Games?
"Absolutely," Poltrack said. "Who wouldn't want the biggest television event of the season?"
Even if it comes with too-high expectations and all that criticism.
ON THE LOCAL FRONT: The ratings for prime-time coverage of the Olympics were better locally than nationally - CBS coverage on KUTV-Ch. 2 averaged a 21.2 rating, 4 points above the national average.
But Salt Lake was only No. 3 nationally. Olympic ratings in Minneapolis averaged a 23.3, and second-place Pittsburgh averaged a 22.7.