My most vivid memories of the Olympics are from the 1988 Seoul Summer Games. It was the only Olympics I’d ever personally attended, and I was in South Korea to meet my just- adopted son, Min, who was about to come live with us for the first time at age 6.
But I also feel connected to the tragic 1972 Munich Summer Olympics where eleven Israeli athletes and coaches were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists. The connection is my good friend Fritz Hattig, a former German olympian who helped organize the Munich games and still has nightmares almost 40 years later about how the event turned out.
Obviously, the Olympics has a special place in my heart, and the same is true for millions of other Americans. It’s even more special for many fans this year, thanks to the Web and that social media phenomenon of Twitter. More on that later.
As of today, Feb. 19, we are about halfway through the Vancouver Winter Olympics (http://www.vancouver2010.com/), or that two-week period where NBC prime-time program devotees must switch to cable channels to watch re-runs of The Office or Law and Order SVU instead of original episodes on the peacock channel. But that seems just ducky with millions of Americans who are still in love with the Olympics.
Over the years, the popularity of both the Summer and Winter Olympics has ebbed and flowed. Once thought to have a commanding presence on television, television executives discovered in the 1990s that there was a definite limit to how many Americans still loved the event. When they overestimated that popularity and sold a lot of up-front network advertising promising huge audiences, often they and their advertisers were disappointed.
And they discovered that trying to sell wall-to-wall coverage as pay-per-view packages wasn’t as easy as they envisioned.
These Games Rake It In
So it was with great delight that NBC discovered just this week that the Vancouver Olympics — at least on some days — was indeed one of the most popular shows on TV.
For example, just today a Washington Post writer noted that the Vancouver Olympics actually bested American Idol. It was the first time in six years any competing program had done that to the ever-popular contemporary version of the ancient Ted Mack Amateur Hour.
Lisa de Moraes writes, “By creating the Perfect Olympic Storm in prime time, mired-in-fourth-place NBC finally and spectacularly broke ‘American Idol’s’ nearly six-year winning streak.
“In the course of what NBC modestly called ‘the greatest single day in Winter Olympics history’ (because the United States captured six medals) the network averaged 29.4 million prime-time viewers.
“But when it went mano a mano with Fox’s singing competition series
Wednesday between 9 and 10 p.m., NBC’s Vancouver Games broadcast averaged 30.1 million viewers. ‘Idol,’ meanwhile, “only” mustered 18.6 million devoted fans … That’s ‘Idol’s’ smallest audience since April 16, 2003.”
It was the first time “idol” had been beaten in its time slot since May 17, 2004.
Up Close and Personal
Certainly NBC has perfected an approach that makes the Olympics so alluring to millions of viewers, and the centerpiece of that approach is the up-close-and-personal profile stories done on the athletes themselves. As we know, so many of these young people have overcome incredible odds to get to the starting lines of their events. Knowing those back stories make the Olympics even more compellling.
Sports psychologize Jenny Conviser, who teaches at Northwestern Univesity, agrees that this personal view of the athletes has increased the popularity of the Olympics.
During the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, she wrote, “Special interest stories and the human side behind the athlete is something that I think has enormous interest for all of us. And, again, it’s that sense of being able to reach out and take charge of one’s life and make it what you want it to be. And any story that represents that is compelling.”
In the Vancouver Olympics, the athletes themselves are boosting that personal aspect for viewers by engaging them in discussions over Twitter and Facebook and through their own blogs. Many of the athletes welcome questions from everyday fans and give insider information on what it’s like to be so close, and yet so far, from the Olympic podium.
The athletes’ tweets and blogs are being featured on NBC’s olympics site, www.nbcolympics.com. A sampling of these tweets and what they’ve had to tweet about is as follows:
On our way to a USA Hockey mens and womens team function. Gotta show support for each other! We are both here to win gold!
Congratulations to the medalists. Thank you to the world for showing me love and I hope I didn’t let you down. I am proud.