In a year with fans' high expectations, the University of Kentucky men's basketball team dribbled rings around Winter Olympians among television viewers.
Nielsen's recently released ratings for the Lexington market during February showed that the allure of speed skating, hockey and other sports that don't have much of a hold in Kentucky were no match for John Calipari's Wildcats.
The best performance of the Winter Olympics came during the opening ceremonies Feb. 12, which scored a household rating of about 24, meaning 24 percent of all television households in the 40-county area measured by Nielsen were tuned in.
By contrast, when Kentucky played last-place Louisiana State on Feb. 6 on CBS affiliate WKYT (Channel 27), the game garnered 34 rating points. The team's loss to Tennessee on Feb. 27 scored a 30 rating, and its victory over Georgia on March 3 had a 32 rating.
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The remaining games were shown on various ESPN channels, which are more difficult to measure based on Nielsen's methodology compared with network affiliates like WKYT.
The basketball games also helped to boost the number of viewers watching WKYT's newscast.
"While the Olympics certainly did well, there's just no beating UK basketball as a strong lead-in," WKYT news director Robert Thomas said. "On the days or evenings when we had a game leading into news, it was a tremendous boost.
"There's just no denying that we live in the heart of basketball country."
That's not to say the Olympics did poorly in Central Kentucky.
Bruce Carter, news director at NBC affiliate WLEX (Channel 18), said the station had "great success" selling advertisements to eager clients because of the ratings that came with the Games. The prime-time coverage did far better than NBC's lineup of dramas and comedies, although daytime coverage was spottier, Carter said.
"Keep in mind how many people participate in winter sports here," Carter said, explaining the lower viewership.
The coverage generally was higher by just 1 ratings point or so than WLEX's typical daytime programming. In some cases, it was down.
For example, coverage during the Dr. Phil time slot at one point earned 2 ratings points and a share of 9. Share is the percent of households that have TVs turned on and are tuned to that show; it helps networks figure out how they do with the audience that is viewing at a specific time instead of the entire potential audience. Dr. Phil normally scores a 4/15 at that spot, Carter said.
The prime-time Winter Olympics bested most of the remaining regular network programming in Central Kentucky. It was, of course, beaten like everything else by the Super Bowl, which scored a 47/69 at one point during that event.
The nightly Olympics coverage also failed to surpass the might of Fox's American Idol, which was the most-watched regular program in Central Kentucky, with an average rating of 15 on Tuesdays and 14.5 on Wednesdays.
Olympics affected 11 p.m. news ratings
With so many special events, one might presume that the ratings of local newscasts could have seen some major viewing shifts.
Not really, except at 11 p.m. The local news battle continued to be a close race between WKYT and WLEX, with WKYT garnering the highest household ratings in the noon, and 12:30, 5, 5:30 and 11 p.m. newscasts. WLEX won from 5 to 7 a.m. and at 6 p.m.
The 11 p.m. newscast became a tough one to measure, as the Olympics delayed the WLEX newscast numerous times. The newscast's ratings were lower when it aired at midnight or later, when fewer people are watching TV. However, WLEX executives said, if the Olympics delays hadn't happened, its 11 p.m. newscast would have topped WKYT's in ratings.
"As great as the Olympics is or any kind of specialty programming is, it does cost you some viewers who are hard-core news viewers who want it at the time they want to get it," WLEX general manager Pat Dalbey said.
Carter also said he thinks WLEX suffered some at 5 p.m. because there were times that coverage delayed the start of newscasts.
The 10 p.m. newscast on Fox affiliate WDKY (Channel 56) saw a good jump and was the highest rated of the late-night newscasts, although it does benefit from being on by itself at a time when more people are watching television.
"Jennifer Palumbo's move back to the 10 p.m. news has proved to be a good one," WDKY general manager Michael Brickey said of the 10 p.m. co-anchor. "She and Marvin (Bartlett) have a chemistry that is hard to find."
February ratings a unique puzzle
The February ratings were difficult to interpret, observers said, because there was no direct year-to-year comparison, the standard usually used. That's because Nielsen took ratings data in March 2009 instead of February because affiliates expected the planned conversion to digital television at that time to throw off viewing habits.
In a surprising move, WLEX posted healthy morning newscast numbers, despite co-anchor Dia Davidson being on maternity leave. Typically when anchors leave or are on an extended hiatus, ratings go down as viewers adjust to the change.
"Nicole (Pence) stepped up to the plate in a difficult time for us, and obviously the viewers liked what they saw," Carter said.
Pence has become the permanent morning co-anchor as Davidson moves to a schedule more conducive to her family life. She is anchoring the noon and 5:30 p.m. newscasts.
ABC affiliate WTVQ (Channel 36) continued to distantly trail the leaders, although it did see some slight ratings improvement at noon and 11 p.m. compared to February 2008.