By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - NBC's costly gamble on the Vancouver Winter Olympics is leaving a hole in its finances but strong ratings offer a welcome showcase for the struggling TV network's revamped prime-time line-up, media analysts say.
Some 138 million people have watched the first five days of the Vancouver games on NBC Universal's networks -- a 22 percent increase on average viewership at the same stage of the last Winter Olympics in Torino in 2006.
Fox television's ratings juggernaut "American Idol" stole some of NBC's thunder on Tuesday night, beating its prime-time Olympics coverage into second place by about 23.6 million to 20.3 million viewers, according to early data on Wednesday.
But for NBC, which has said it will lose about $250 million on televising the Vancouver games, the payoff could come later if Americans get back into the forgotten habit of simply turning on NBC for its prime-time shows.
NBC has languished at the bottom of the four big U.S. TV networks for more than four years and has scrambled to find new dramas and comedies to please audiences. Moreover, it must now fill the gaping 10 p.m. weekday hole left by its failed experiment with "The Jay Leno Show," which ended last week.
Many of its new shows, including a Jerry Seinfeld comedy venture "The Marriage Ref" and family drama series "Parenthood," debut in March and are being heavily promoted to Winter Olympics viewers between ice-dancing and speed skating.
"I think they have made the most of the opportunity they had. They timed this well for the potential to really promote these replacement shows," said David Bank, media analyst with RBC Capital Markets.
"They are positioning their shows really well for a first look. The question is, will they have the legs to stand on their own? And the answer to that is unclear," Bank said.
OLYMPICS 'HALO' EFFECT?
NBC paid a record $2.2 billion in 2003 for the U.S. broadcast rights to the 2010 and 2012 Olympics -- before the slump in the advertising market and its own ratings slide.
Keith Sherin, the chief financial officer of NBC parent the General Electric Co, has said ad sales for Vancouver will be $650 million to $700 million. That's in line with Torino in 2006, which cost less for the network to air.
American interest has been fueled by Vancouver's proximity to the United States, allowing many events to be broadcast live, at least to the eastern and central U.S. states.
The fatal crash of a Georgian luger on opening day also piqued interest, along with a strong U.S. contingent including speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, downhill skier Lindsey Vonn and snowboarder Shaun White, analysts said.
Visitors to the NBCOlympics.com website have increased 250 percent over 2006, NBC said, while NBC's news shows and daytime coverage on cable outlets like MSNBC and USA have maximized American appetites for Olympics-related events.
"The 'Olympic Halo' touches every division of NBC Universal," said NBC Universal sports and Olympics spokesman Chris McCloskey.
Dennis Mazzocco, a media professor at Hofstra University and veteran of 12 Olympics telecasts, said the many promotional opportunities offered by the Olympics could also play well with NBC's future parent, cable provider Comcast Corp.
"I think there are people inside NBC sports who are trying to establish to Comcast the value of making a huge capital investment in broadcasting the Olympics.
"I think they have great concerns that Comcast is going to come in with a bottom line mentality," Mazzocco said.
Bidding for the 2014 and 2016 Olympics is expected before the NBC-Comcast deal gets regulatory approval later this year.