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Olympics losing young audiences

This week, NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said he expects that in the not-too-distant future - probably by the time the network is airing the 2012 games, at the latest - fans of the Olympics will be able to download event coverage to iPods or laptops, watching events almost as they happen.

It may seem unnecessary to traditional Olympic fans, but it might be the only way to rouse interest in the youngest generation of television watchers.

Already, NBC has lost the attention of the advertisers' most coveted age bracket, the 18-49 demographic. Through 13 nights, ratings for the 18-49 demo are only 6.3, compared to the 12.4 overall rating for primetime coverage. Not only are these likely going to be the lowest-rated Olympics ever, a large majority of viewers are 50 and over.

Certainly folks under 18 aren't tuning in. Watching the Olympics used to be a child's rite of passage, but when Sasha Cohen's short program airs at 11:25 p.m., or Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto's historic, silver-medal winning skate is on at 11:15, it is obvious that NBC is beholden to advertisers and ratings numbers, and has given little thought to inspiring the kids who dream of someday climbing atop a medals podium and singing the national anthem.

For all Ebersol's talk of the romance of the word "Torino" and the Olympic ideal, the bottom line is that NBC estimates it will make $50-million to $75-million off these games. Why? Because the 418 hours of coverage means it can sell tons of advertising, not just in all of its cable and daytime coverage, but in three- to four-hour blocks starting at 8 p.m.

It makes sense the network would show its most compelling footage at night, but because there is so much big-money time to fill, NBC saves the best for last, considering many viewers know the results anyway and are only staying up to see the good stuff.

But in looking at the short term results (NBC last week won prime time for the first time since Athens in 2004, cable ratings are up) it may be hurting itself in the long term. Olympics will always have great performances. But parents are also always going to get their young kids to bed by 9:30, or earlier.

Fox understands this, which is why American Idol - which seems to fire up the imagination of every kid that has ever wanted to get up on stage - airs at 8 p.m. Idol, of course, has crushed the Olympics in ratings these two weeks. Medal-winning skaters and snowboarders aside, it seems likely that years from now, this generation will better remember the fun of an overhyped talent show more than they will remember anything about these Olympics.