By DAVID BAUDER, AP TELEVISION WRITER
NBC has more than Bode Miller and Michelle Kwan to be concerned about during the Olympics. There's also Simon Cowell, Evangeline Lilly and those interns on "Grey's Anatomy."
Many factors have conspired to make the Turin Olympics -- through five days of competition -- less of a television event than past games. Probably the most significant is that other networks are putting up a fight with potent weapons.
NBC was knocked on its heels by the first night the Olympics went up against Fox's "American Idol" Tuesday. Based on preliminary Nielsen Media Research estimates, "Idol" doubled the Olympics audience when they went head-to-head again on Wednesday.
Wednesday is also likely to stand as the least-watched night of winter Olympics competition since at least 1988, according to Nielsen.
Besides "Idol," viewers who aren't slalom-inclined have also had new episodes of "Lost," "Desperate Housewives," "Survivor" and "Dancing With the Stars" to choose from.
"In the past, the winter Olympics have not had a lot of competition," said Stacey Lynn Koerner, analyst for the Initiative media agency, "because typically the other networks would lie down and say, 'why put our best stuff up against a powerhouse?"'
Through the first four days of competition, the average Olympics viewership of 21.6 million people is down 36 percent from the 2002 Salt Lake City games, 45 percent among the 18-to-49-year-old viewers advertisers prefer.
The Salt Lake City games were unusually good for NBC. Domestic Olympics typically fare better in the ratings than foreign ones, there was a surge of patriotism following the 2001 terrorist attacks and NBC was the top-rated network, meaning the competition was less fearsome.
Factor in general viewer erosion because there are simply more channels to choose from, and NBC says the Turin numbers -- distressing as they may seem -- are within the range they promised to advertisers.
Influential analysts like Koerner and Sharianne Brill of Carat USA say the Olympics ratings are about what they had expected, perhaps slightly less.
"They're a little bit lower than what we had projected, which I would attribute to the fact that there hasn't been a compelling U.S. story line yet," said a competitor, CBS chief researcher David Poltrack.
The U.S. had a gold medal winner in skier Ted Ligety, but most of the pre-race hype had gone to Miller, who was disqualified in that race. On Wednesday, Toby Dawson won a bronze in the moguls, yet it was Jeremy Bloom who had gotten much of the pre-race attention.
Television viewers interested in compelling stories about ambitious young people fighting against the odds to realize their dreams plainly found them more on "American Idol" than the Olympics, Poltrack said.
In an increasingly wired world, it's apparent more people are checking the Internet for Olympics results and basing their viewing choices on what they found, Brill said.
NBC notes that its viewership is down 22 percent since Nagano in 1998. At the same time, the World Series is down 21 percent, and the Academy Awards down 27 percent -- proof that big events in general have less pull than they used to, the network said.
There's been no talk yet of make-goods, when advertisers are given free commercial time to make up for a smaller-than-expected audience. That has dangers, too; Koerner said viewers were turned off by a flood of extra commercials during the final days of the Sydney Games.
NBC has also tried to make itself less dependent on prime-time ratings by seeking other revenue opportunities in cable and on the Internet.
Wednesday night's ratings troubles were predictable for NBC: there was no figure skating scheduled, and no American won a gold medal that day. NBC compounded matters with a particularly deflating opening segment on an American speedskating team that lost amid dissension within its ranks.
It doesn't get any easier for NBC. The Olympics competed with a new "Survivor" episode on Thursday, as well as ABC's surprise hit "Dancing With the Stars."
Next week is women's figure skating, always the marquee event for winter Olympics television viewers. NBC faces it, however, without Kwan and analysts say the network needs a strong American competitor to bring people in.
Next week, also, "American Idol" airs three new episodes instead of two.