Usually when a broadcaster starts doing funny things with ratings, you can be pretty sure it's an attempt to put a new coat of paint on a rusty car.
The moment a network highlights things like "a 50 percent increase in the 18-49 demographic," you know the overall numbers aren't good. What that usually means is that ratings were down everywhere except in the 18-49 age group, where six people watched instead of the usual four.
And that was the first assumption when CBC released its audience numbers for the first weekend of Sochi Olympics coverage. There was mention of the total audience for Friday's Opening Ceremony -- 19 million Canadians saw at least part of the Opening Ceremony in Sochi combining the ratings for the live broadcast, repeats and online streams -- but no mention of what the average ratings were.
Information on daily averages was also sketchy, though in general CBC said it was happy with the audience numbers and touted the growth of digital viewing. It's taken some forensic accounting and reading of entrails to figure things out -- and the picture doesn't look that dark.
The fact is that despite CBC's apparent paranoia, the ratings have been pretty strong and have exceeded expectations. Yes, and here's the real reason for CBC's unique approach to audience numbers, some pale in comparison to the last Winter Games.
The average for Friday's Opening Ceremony was about 6.9 million, including the morning live broadcasts, two repeats and online viewing. Even with that creative accounting, the average pales in comparison to Vancouver, which saw an average audience of 13.3 million viewers on television alone.
The CTV-Rogers consortium reported at the time that 26 million Canadians viewed some or part of the broadcast. CBC says 19 million watched some or all of the Sochi extravaganza.
But it's not really fair to compare Sochi with Vancouver. The Vancouver Opening Ceremony aired live in prime time and there's nothing like an Olympics at home to drive up the numbers.
A more pertinent comparison is Day 1 of competition. In 2010, the consortium averaged 3.9 million television viewers for the entire broadcast day. CBC's afternoon average on Saturday was 3.3 million. That does include those who watched on Sportsnet's various channels and TSN's two as well as those who watched online, though.
Still, it's a good number considering that a lot of the competition in Sochi starts in the middle of the night.
The fact is that the Sochi numbers are never going to approach what happened in Vancouver, which had the added advantage of a much more desirable time zone. A fairer comparison would be the 2006 Torino Olympics.
Prime-time broadcasts averaged 1.7 million viewers for CBC back then, with a six-hour time difference, 37 per cent lower than the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.
A new ratings system instituted in recent years would have boosted those numbers, but probably by about 20 per cent. So, compared with the last Winter Olympics in an inconvenient time zone, CBC is doing fairly well in Sochi.
In fact, many in the business predicted dismal ratings because of the nine-hour time difference for those living in the population-dense eastern time zones. That's why no other Canadian broadcaster wanted these Games and why CBC paid about 40 per cent less than the consortium did for the last package.
That time difference also explains the rise in digital viewing. According to CBC, more than 3.2 million Canadians have watched a total of 1.4 million hours of online streaming through Monday. During the 2012 Summer Games in London, Canadians watched 3.4 million hours online over 19 days.
No doubt those numbers will rise on weekdays, when many are watching on their office computers.
Here are the most-watched sports events of the past weekend, according to BBM Canada overnight ratings for English-language TV. Keep in mind that Olympics ratings are incomplete:
1. Olympics, Opening Ceremony, Friday, CBC: 6,974,000*
2. Saturday afternoon competition, CBC: 3,325,000**
3. Olympics, Sunday afternoon competition, CBC: 2,640,000**
4. NHL, Canucks-Leafs/Habs-Canes, Saturday, CBC: 2,225,200
5. NHL, Senators at Bruins, Saturday, CBC: 1,019,000
6. Curling, Scotties final, Sunday, TSN: 908,000
7. Curling, Scotties bronze game, Sunday, TSN: 613,000
8. Curling, Scotties prime-time playoff, Friday, TSN: 583,000S
9. Curling, Scotties semifinal, Saturday, TSN: 556,000
10. Curling, Scotties page playoff, Saturday, TSN: 447,000
11. Curling, Scotties morning draw, Friday, TSN: 229,000
12. NHL, Oilers at Devils, Friday, Sportsnet West: 179,000
13. Curling, Alberta men's final, Sunday, Sportsnet: 168,000
14. NBA, Raptors at Clippers, Friday, TSN: 142,000
15. Curling, Alberta men's semifinal, Sunday, Sportsnet: 118,000
* includes all viewing live, repeats, digital viewing
** includes all viewing and digital
THREE TO WATCH
An ice time for all: Canadians are pretty excited about things like luge and snowboarding, as long as we're winning. But nothing matters more than hockey and things start heating up on the ice this week. The men's team has a couple of meaningless games to open the tournament, but will face its first serious test on Sunday when it plays Finland. Noon EST, CBC.
The real battle of the blades: World champion Patrick Chan will carry a somewhat heavy load on to the ice in Sochi, namely the hopes of an entire nation that is expecting him to produce its first Olympic gold in the men's competition. Adding to the pressure is the surprising re-emergence of home favourite Evgeni Plushenko. The short program starts Thursday, 10 a.m. EST with the free program Friday at 10. Both are on TSN.
Now for something completely different: If you're tired of all this flag-waving and anthem-singing in Sochi, the American Hockey League is offering up its annual all-star game in a rather interesting format: The league's all-stars against Farjestad of the Swedish league. Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. EST on Sportsnet One.