NEW YORK – The winter Olympics proved no match for television's gold-medal winner, "American Idol." Fox's phenomenally successful contest crushed the Olympics in head-to-head competition on Tuesday night, 27 million viewers to 16.1 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.
The Olympics recovered a bit after "Idol" went off the air, but its overall audience of 18.6 million was the least-watched winter Olympics telecast since Nagano's closing ceremonies in 1998, Nielsen said.
Since its opening on Friday, the Torino games have been running well below the 2002 Salt Lake City games in viewership interest. Much of that was expected, but Tuesday's ratings was the first alarming sign for NBC that increased TV competition has taken a toll.
"The competition from 'Idol' is heavier than the Olympics has ever seen," said NBC Sports spokeswoman Alana Russo.
It doesn't figure to get any easier, with "Idol" and ABC's "Lost" on the air Wednesday. CBS' "Survivor" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" offer more competition on Thursday.
Even figure skating, the most popular winter Olympics sport for viewers, didn't help much on Tuesday. NBC filled about two-thirds of the hour during which it competed with "American Idol" with tape of the men's figure-skating competition.
Through five nights of Olympics coverage, NBC's average prime-time rating is 12.7 (a rating point represents 1,102,000 households, or 1 percent of the nation's estimated 110.2 million TV homes). NBC said before the games started that it had promised its advertisers a rating of between 12 and 14. If it slips below that, NBC will have to make it up to advertisers with free commercial time.
"'American Idol' is clearly a phenomenon," said Randy Falco, president of the NBC Universal Television Group. "But we expected it and are tracking right where we planned to be at this point."
Between NBC and its affiliated cable networks, an estimated 65 percent of the nation's television homes have tuned in at least some of the games, Falco said.