NEW YORK – One of the most exciting television battles during the next few weeks may be between Paula Abdul and Michelle Kwan, or another darling of the Winter Olympics.
The Olympics, which open Friday from Turin, Italy on NBC, is a TV event that traditionally flattens opponents for the network that spent millions of dollars for the right to broadcast it. Other networks can either try to attract viewers not interested in ice dancing or give way and essentially close up shop.
But judging by its startling staying power, "American Idol" may steal the spotlight from the skiers and skaters.
"The Olympics aren't as daunting as people think they are," said Preston Beckman, Fox's executive vice president for strategic program planning and strategy.
Spoken like someone with Simon Cowell on his side.
Each of the six audition episodes of "American Idol" that have aired in the past three weeks has drawn more than 30 million viewers, and two hit the 35 million mark, according to Nielsen Media Research. Even Fox thought interest in "Idol" would start to wane in its fifth season, but it's picked up even more momentum.
Even before the Olympics, "American Idol" has an intriguing warm-up match. Will the amateur singers of "Idol" outrate professionals like Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Paul McCartney and John Legend on the Grammy Awards, competing head-to-head Wednesday?
The Olympics and "American Idol" will air against each other four times during the next few weeks.
"I think 'American Idol' wins, except during the finals of the figure skating, if the U.S. is doing well or if there's some major scandal," said Steve Sternberg, an analyst for the ad buying firm Magna Global.
The Olympics are still going to be a major TV event, but Sternberg predicts its ratings will be between 15 to 20 percent below the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Those games were a big hit, and American audiences tend to be more interested in Olympic games on American soil, he said.
Rather than cannibalize each other's audiences, the Olympics and "Idol" are going to bring more people to television, or take viewers away from cable stations, he said.
That's partly what Fox was thinking in deciding to stick primarily with its regular schedule during the Olympics. It will air only a handful of reruns and specials, including four straight episodes of the soon-to-be-canceled "Arrested Development" Friday, Feb. 10.
"The overwhelming number of people who are watching the Olympics don't watch Fox," Beckman said. "For us to run away from it is goofy."
The Winter Olympics tend to draw a lot of older women, and viewers who aren't big watchers of broadcast networks anyway, he said. That's why Beckman, a former NBC executive, suspects it may be difficult for his old network to successfully promote, during the Olympics, new prime-time shows that will start in March.
The network likely to be most affected by the Olympics is CBS, which generally has the oldest audience. CBS will avoid showing fresh episodes of most of its series while the games are on.
It's a tough strategic decision for network executives to make about when to air reruns, particularly when the ratings race is so tight. CBS has an advantage in that its dramas tend to do better in repeats than those on other networks. A few reruns in February means extra new episodes in March and April.
CBS will also show some action-oriented movies like "Die Another Day" and "Terminator 3" to entice men who couldn't care less about figure skating.
The biggest difference from the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics for CBS is that this year the network started a new edition of "Survivor" and will air it through the games. Four years ago executives waited until after the games.
Faced with a Wednesday night with both "American Idol" and the Olympics, ABC will air a rerun of the "Lost" pilot instead of a new episode of the popular drama.
"You know what?" said Jeff Bader, head of scheduling for ABC, "there are certain programming combinations that you don't want to go up against. We're better off saving an original (episode)."
In general, though, ABC plans to be more competitive than it was four years ago with original episodes of series. And the network will directly challenge the Olympics closing ceremonies with a two-hour finale for "Dancing With the Stars."
That's partly because ABC is in far healthier shape as a network than it was four years ago, Bader said. He's also not fully convinced of the drawing power for these Olympics, particularly because there are no live events in prime time.
Still, scheduling against the Olympics allows for a little flexibility, he said.
"If there are three Americans in contention for the gold medal in figure skating, we can change our minds," he said.