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Figure skating trumps 'American Idol', and NBC's Scott Hamilton cries

February 26, 2010 |  1:55 pm

For the second time in two weeks, the previously untouchable "American Idol" television show on Fox was beaten by NBC's Olympic coverage Thursday night. That coverage included Americans Billy Demong and Johnny Spillane going 1-2 in a Nordic combined event, the men's aerials and, most importantly, the long program for the ladies in figure skating.

During the 8-9 p.m. hour, when the Olympics went head-to-head with "Idol," NBC averaged 19.2 million viewers to Idol's 17.8, according to the Nielsen ratings. NBC averaged 22.9 million viewers on the night. The top group of six skaters featuring eventual gold medalists Kim Yuna as well as silver medalist Mao Asada; Canada's Joannie Rochette, who won bronze only five days after her mother died of a heart attack in a Vancouver, Canada, hotel room; and 16-year-old American Mirai Nagasu, who skated the best long program of her life to move from sixth to fourth.

In a statement, Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports and Olympics, said the win over "American Idol" was unexpected. "I never thought we would have the good fortune to beat the incredibly well-produced and enduring phenomenon of 'American Idol' even once," Ebersol said. "But twice?...We are happy to rent 'Idol's' space for a few nights."

And it turns out the hour when NBC beat "Idol" was its least-watched hour of the night (so it doesn't take a genius to figure out where "Idol" viewers turned when their show was finished). The Olympics' two wins over "Idol" are the first time any program has beaten the talent-finding show since May 17, 2004.

One other interesting number: NBC has been breaking down its viewership numbers by time zone. The coverage is live in the Eastern and Central zones and tape-delayed to prime time in the Mountain and Pacific time zones. So far, the tape-delayed Mountain and Pacific have been 1-2 every night. Thursday night Mountain stayed No. 1 but the Pacific area fell behind the Central. The East just keeps finishing last.

During that final hour of the Thursday broadcast, where NBC went for an hour without commercial interruption to show the final group of ladies (don't worry, plenty of commercials during the rest of night), we'd like to offer kudos to Scott Hamilton, who did the NBC call of the ladies figure skating, long and short program.

Hamilton cried on Tuesday when Rochette skated a mistake-free short program only two days after her mother passed away. There was some criticism of Hamilton's naked emotions but what could be better? A television guy unafraid to transmit to the audience the feeling that was so obvious in the arena.

When Rochette finished Thursday, Hamilton again choked up again. "I think a moment like that brings out memories of our own experiences about loss, our own recollections. I was putting myself in her position. How do you deal with this, respond to such a devastating moment. Tuesday was the 16th anniversary of the day I lost my father. Joannie's experience put me in touch with all of that. We've all suffered losses, all had our hearts broken. I wanted Joannie to be everything she knew her mother knew she could be. There were a lot of layers to my feelings and I couldn't hide them."

-- Diane Pucin