Now that the games are over and the February sweeps are about to wrap, it seems clear that the relatively lackluster ratings for NBC's Winter Olympics can be chalked up to a simple fact: TV is better than it was four years ago.
It wasn't that we didn't get hooked on the Olympics this year. Turns out we were more hooked on TV itself. Hooked on American Idol, to be sure. But also hooked on 24, Grey's Anatomy, Lost, House, Desperate Housewives, Dancing with the Stars, Survivor, Battlestar Galactica and so on. Unlike many past Olympics winters, rival networks didn't roll over and play dead if they had an addictive hit show to air. More choice for us, which is a good thing, and more often than not, we chose to watch real TV, not this overpackaged, time-delayed, overly selective dinosaur from Italy.
When NBC actually presented a sport I cared about, I tended to watch my regular shows first, setting my DVR on the Olympics and zooming through NBC's broadcast in world-record time. I would often sample a heat or a round of a sport to see if it would hook me — that's how I discovered snowboard cross, which is a heck of a lot more thrilling to watch than that half-pipe curiosity. If I didn't get caught up in a particular sport or story, I'd move on to the marquee event. Most nights I could make it through NBC's three-and-a-half-hour show in less than two hours of actual TV time.
Last Thursday (Feb. 23) was well chronicled as an ultimate showdown of reality TV and Olympics TV. Women's figure skating meets Dancing with the Stars finals meets American Idol results meets Survivor. Reality, more or less, won. But then so did the Olympics, because everyone with a clock or a brain could figure the major skaters wouldn't go on until late — criminally late, for those with school-age kids in the house — and that's how it turned out. I watched Survivor, caught up on DVR with the Olympics pretty quickly, and watched the female skaters live (well, live on tape) for the next two hours. (As usual, I kept wondering what that banner "Passion lives here" was referring to, because it certainly wasn't captured on NBC.)
When the Olympics finally signed off, I played back the Idol results (which as usual took about 10 minutes to watch, there was so much filler). And I caught up with Dancing with the Stars on Friday. No urgency there — but can we just thank providence that Drew Lachey was crowned the champ Sunday night instead of the lead-footed (though perfectly charming) Jerry Rice? Everyone was being a good sport about it, so there's no chance (thankfully) of a dance-off no matter who won or lost. But Drew deserved the trophy on the basis of his freestyle dance alone. Good job.
Finally, does it say anything about us as a nation that we would rather watch our favorite shows than be held captive by NBC's brand of Olympics? Only that we know good TV when we see it, and NBC, as has so often been the case these last few seasons and this Olympics, came up short.