Only four days in and NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol finds himself with an Olympic-size challenge at the Torino Games: how to deliver ratings gold without Michelle Kwan.
The Winter Olympics depends more on figure skating than any event to attract audiences. The showdown between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding at the Lillehammer Games in 1994 was one of the highest-rated TV programs in history. Kwan's quixotic quest for her elusive gold medal at Nagano in 1998 and Salt Lake City in 2002 drew viewers.
Within hours of Kwan withdrawing because of injury Sunday, Ebersol offered her a TV gig while she was being interviewed by Bob Costas. But the classy, elegant Olympian declined because she "didn't want to be a distraction," NBC spokesman Mike McCarley said.
NBC sportscasters worried Sunday about losing the most famous American athlete. Figure skating analyst Scott Hamilton told NBC News' Lester Holt that Kwan's withdrawal is "really stunning to all of us."
NBC has done plenty of things right so far — more action, fewer schmaltzy profiles. Also: Mary Carillo's Olympic Ice, an hourlong figure skating show on USA Network, is a must-watch. The women's hockey coverage Sunday on USA and MSNBC with Cammi Granato and Bill Clement was outstanding.
Similar to past Olympics, NBC hopes to turn a profit of $50 million to $75 million off Torino. But the stakes are higher with Kwan out of the picture. NBC is on track to sell nearly $900 million in ad time. The Madison Avenue types with black Armani suits and cell phones demand ratings.
Friday's opening ceremonies on NBC generated a 12.8 household TV rating, double its nearest competitor, ABC's "Dancing with the Stars." Saturday's prime-time rating of 13.5 beat the other networks combined.
U.S.-based Olympics such as Salt Lake in 2002 generate higher ratings. So the closest recent ratings comparison for the Italy-based Torino Games would be the Nagano Games in Japan on CBS in 1998. Although Torino's opening night rating dropped 25 percent vs. Nagano, its Saturday ratings climbed 10 percent.
NBC will be able to milk Kwan's replacement by Emily Hughes for a few nights. After that, it's an open question whether Sasha Cohen and Hughes will have her drawing power. The best news: The Winter Olympics is known for minting new stars, such as Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes. "The biggest stars going into an Olympics are not always the biggest stars coming out of the Olympics," McCarley noted. Game on.