The Winter Olympics are only half over, but already one result is in: The prime-time competition is trouncing the Games.
That might seem like a harsh assessment for a broadcast that is averaging more than 20 million viewers a night on NBC. But that's the consensus building among analysts as the drumbeat of head-to-head Olympic defeat continues.
From American Idol on Fox to Grey's Anatomy on ABC, the once-invincible Games have been taking it on the Nielsen chin this week, raising serious questions about the role they play - or don't play - in American life.
"They've got no style, no narrative and no ratings," says University of Maryland media economist Douglas Gomery. "NBC is watching its money go down the toilet, because we're not watching the Games. That's mainly NBC's fault, but changes in the audience and the way in which other networks are competing have something to do with it, too."
The Olympics used to rally viewers of all ages to watch the U.S. hockey team beat Russia or see how the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding catfight played out. This Olympics, though, there is no one big story to unite a fragmented audience, some of whom are glued instead to Idol or - having already heard the news from Turin - are simply uninterested in the tape-delayed broadcast.
"That's the great failure of NBC in this Olympics," Gomery said, "its inability to find or forge a narrative that can inspire a mass audience to be in front of the TV set every night."
In past Olympic years, competing networks and cable channels cut back on their commitment to traditional February "sweeps" programming to lie low until the torch is dimmed. Not this year.
With the Games appearing on a struggling NBC, the competition came out swinging.
The first major blow was struck Sunday night when the ABC drama Grey's Anatomy outdrew the Olympics by more than 4 million viewers. Both Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives, ABC's sexy Sunday night soap about suburban life, topped NBC's Olympics coverage among the most-desired 18-to-49-year-old audience.
The news got worse for NBC on Tuesday night, when American Idol, the hottest show on television, drew 27.1 million viewers to overwhelm the Olympics with its audience of only 15.4 million.
But no one - not even the programmers at Fox - predicted the kind of trouncing Idol gave the Olympics on Wednesday, when its audience of 28.2 million viewers was nearly double the 14.3 million watching the Games.
And finally, on Thursday, the Olympics could manage only a bronze during the 8-to-9 p.m. time slot, coming in third after ABC's Dancing with the Stars and CBS' Survivor: Panama.
"Who could imagine the Olympics getting beat like that?" said Larry Mintz, University of Maryland professor of popular culture, referring to a time when everyone seemed to know the names of such Olympic personalities as figure-skater Dorothy Hamill or annoucer Jim McKay.
NBC's ratings woes extend beyond a few selected nights. Viewership for the first six nights of the Games is down 36 percent compared with Winter Games in Salt Lake City in 2002, 24 percent from Nagano in 1998, and 44 percent from Lillehammer in 1994.
And the malaise could deepen next week when Fox puts three nights of Idol up against the Olympics - including Tuesday and Thursday, the evenings of women's figure-skating competition, which are expected to draw the largest audiences.
"Good luck in trying to hold off American Idol without Michelle Kwan," Gomery said, noting the standout skater's withdrawal from the games last week because of a groin injury.
(Kwan has been replaced by Emily Hughes, whose sister won a gold medal for figure-skating at the last Winter Games.)
"Once again, it just proves how important the star system is in television - whether it is a star anchorperson doing network news or a star performer in a prime-time drama," Gomery said.
"Stars draw viewers, and NBC lost its star when Michelle Kwan bowed out. It's not NBC's fault that she got injured, but it is NBC's mistake in building so much of the drama of their coverage around her. Now what are they building to?"
How about figure-skaters Sasha Cohen and Emily Hughes? asks Andy Donchin, director of national broadcast for Carat, a media services firm in New York.
"Maybe NBC is having a little trouble establishing those big stars and their stories. But I still think the skaters will do well," he said. "As an advertiser I made sure some of our spots were in the skating because it is so engaging."
Donchin acknowledges that his remarks are colored by the fact that four clients are advertising during the Olympic broadcasts: "Everybody is saying the Olympics are not working, and NBC isn't doing well, and the Games [stink]. Yeah, it's not as doing as well as NBC would want. But ... 20 million viewers is still a lot of people watching your ad on network TV."