BBC wins its Olympic bout with ITV

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The Independent Online
The BBC has largely won its high-stakes bet that Britons wanted wall-to-wall coverage of the Atlanta Olympic Games, according to the latest TV viewing figures.

Despite the dearth of British medal hopefuls, and the tricky time-zone differences between the UK and Georgia, the BBC's coverge, presented by Desmond Lynam, has posted impressive audiences with as many as two million tuning in, even in the small hours of the morning.

Among the most popular events was Linford Christie's race in the 100 metres in the early hours of last Sunday, which garnered 5.6m - three- quarters of all those watching at that hour.

"We are very encouraged by the growth in audience from day one," Brian Barwick, head of sport broadcasting, said. "This proved that not only are people watching in large numbers in the day, but are changing their sleeping patterns and watching in the middle of night." The largest audience of all was registered late last Saturday night, when 10.7m tuned in to watch.

However, the BBC concedes that the figures could not match the record of the Barcelona Games. The time zone difference is probably the reason. BBC schedulers will have breathed a sigh of relief: there had been fears that viewers would abandon the BBC, seeking other entertainment, particularly after the Games degenerated into an organisational shambles.

All the same, the combination of the lateness of the hour for many key events and the disappointing lack of British medal contenders has taken a toll overall on BBC1's share of viewing. Its share dropped by 2.2 percentage points during the first week of the Olympics, to about 31.8 per cent from 34 per cent. ITV's share climbed 1.6 points to 40.1 per cent.

Some viewing periods were disappointing, particularly during the day. The BBC conceded that the rescheduling of favourites such as Murder One and EastEnders had helped ITV and Channel 4 programmes beat BBC1 on certain nights. Last Thursday ITV's The Big Story was watched by 7.6m viewers, significantly higher than its average for the year of 4m. The fact that EastEnders did not run against it was the chief reason, even ITV insiders admit.

Among other programmes affected during the two weeks that the BBC has run games coverage throughout its schedule is Breakfast News, relegated from BBC1 to BBC2. The BBC figures were affected by the presence of British medal hopefuls, particularly in the evening. "Obviously Christie and Jonathan Edwards attracted more viewers," a BBC spokesman said.

The Patriot Games, page 12

Today's reports, pages 28-32