Athens Games beating Sydney in TV raceLONDON The Athens Games may set an unofficial Olympic record for empty seats in the stands, but vacancies have been less glaring in the world's Barcaloungers.
The Games' global television audiences, eagerly tracked by the International Olympic Committee and by broadcasters and advertisers alike, are still being tallied. But early, incomplete snapshots suggest that viewership of the Athens Olympics will stack up favorably against that of the Sydney Games in 2000.
Variations in national viewing preferences, different ways of allocating broadcast rights, a lack of standardization in the way audiences are measured and the distorting effects of the eight time zones between Athens and Sydney complicate any direct comparisons between 2004 and 2000 and between different countries.
Still, in several big European and North American markets, Athens appeared late last week to be running ahead of Sydney. The Games ended on Sunday.
"The organization has been superb, the time angle helps, and there have been a lot of little dramas everywhere," said Nigel Currie, London-based director of GEM Group, a sports marketing agency.
Any increase in ratings has perhaps been most pronounced in Europe, where audiences tend to prefer live broadcasts, rather than the packaged highlights shown during prime time in the United States on NBC. The time difference of only one hour between Athens and most of Western Europe means that most events have been shown live during the day or in the early evening, whereas much of the live programming from Sydney came in the very early hours of the European morning.
In Germany, average television ratings for the first week of the Athens Olympics were nearly double those of the comparable period during the Sydney Games, according to Initiative, a media strategy firm. British ratings were up more than 50 percent.
The BBC, which has broadcast rights to the Athens Games in Britain, achieved an average rating of 4.6 during the first seven days, up from 3 percent for the same period of the Sydney Games, according to Initiative. That means 4.6 percent of the population, on average, was watching the Olympics at any one point during the 98 hours of Games-related programming on the BBC in those seven days.
Dramas like the withdrawal of the British runner Paula Radcliffe from the marathon after 36 kilometers, or almost 23 miles, caused audiences to shoot upward. Still, the 10.7 million Britons who watched as she withdrew from the race pales in comparison with, say, the 24.7 million who watched England lose to Portugal on penalty kicks during the Euro 2004 soccer tournament.
In Germany, too, the Olympics have lacked the concentrated appeal of a major international soccer competition, but the cumulative audiences are significant. The average rating for the 111 hours of programming on the ARD and ZDF networks during the first week was 4.8 percent, according to Initiative, up from 2.6 percent during the comparable period of the Sydney Games.
In the United States, NBC, which paid $793 million for the Athens broadcast rights and which showed the 2000 Games as well, has recorded relatively strong ratings this time around. Through the first 11 days, it achieved an average 15.8 rating for its prime-time packages of the day's main events, according to Nielsen Media Research - meaning that 15.8 percent of American households, on average, were tuned in.
That compares with 14.5 for the Sydney Games, though the Barcelona Games in 1992 achieved a 17.5 average rating during the comparable period. Time differences - Sydney is 15 hours ahead of the U.S. East Coast, while Athens is seven hours ahead - make live programming less popular in America than the taped prime-time shows.
The availability of Olympic programming on four cable networks owned by NBC, a unit of General Electric - USA Network, Bravo, CNBC and MSNBC, which typically reach far smaller audiences - makes overall ratings comparisons difficult, with the European figures or with previous Games.
Ratings agencies said comprehensive viewing figures from the Asia-Pacific region would not be compiled until after the Games.
Time differences may have deterred some viewers in Asia, but early numbers suggest that the Games often gained sizable shares of the hard-core television viewers who tuned in during the early morning hours in the Asia-Pacific region.
In New Zealand, for example, the Games' opening ceremonies drew an audience share of 75 percent, meaning that 75 percent of the televisions that were switched on at that time were tuned to the ceremonies, Nielsen said.
But because the show took place on Saturday morning in that country - Friday night in Athens - the competition for viewers would have been less intense than elsewhere.
Elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific, local favorites drew strong audiences.
A soccer match between South Korea and Mexico on the second day of the Olympic competition notched up a 77 percent share in South Korea, according to Nielsen.
In China, meanwhile, Day 6 was strong, with Chinese athletes in the finals in judo, badminton, weightlifting and flying disk competitions. In Beijing, Olympic programming recorded a 36 percent share that day.
The appeal of the Olympics to a diverse audience is demonstrated by tallies of Internet searches compiled by Initiative and by Overture, a provider of search services on the Web.
In Britain, three of the five most-searched athletes' names during the first week of the Games were women (Denise Lewis, Jade Johnson and Radcliffe), while the top two were foreign athletes - the Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe and his American rival Michael Phelps.
Marketers, always on the lookout for fresh faces to endorse their goods, pay careful attention to the way athletes register with consumers.
Currie said Phelps, along with the 17-year-old British boxer Amir Khan, might be among the winners in the endorsement games.
Over all, women accounted for 54 percent of the BBC's Olympic audience during the first week, compared with 49 percent for the Sydney Games, according to Initiative - another finding that should cheer marketers, given that women typically make the majority of household purchasing decisions.
"That's an incredibly high percentage of women for a major sporting event," said Kevin Alavy, an analyst at Initiative. Typically, only one-third of sports viewers are women, he said.
In Germany, male viewers still outnumbered women, 54 percent to 46 percent, but the most-searched-for athlete on the Internet was a female swimmer, Franziska van Almsick.