WJAC juggles Olympics coverage

With as many as 25 million viewers watching every night, the Winter Olympics mean a lot for NBC – and for its affiliates such as WJAC-TV (Channel 6).

“It just destroys [other networks] in the ratings, and that’s an opportunity for us,” said Matt Maisel, sports director for Channel 6.

That does not mean an opportunity to rehash Olympic news, though. Or even an opportunity to compile contrived local sports stories with Olympic themes.

“We know our viewership increases, and it’s a busy time of year for us,” Maisel said. “Our focus is local, though. There were a couple of nights last week when we had only 45 seconds of Olympics in our sports segment. Next week it’ll probably be even less.”

High school basketball playoffs begin next week and the Altoona/Johnstown market includes 10 counties, providing dozens of schools and storylines for WJAC’s three-person staff (Maisel, Pat Welter and Ashley Chase).

Maisel anticipates most of whatever Olympic coverage WJAC provides next week will come around ice hockey, especially men’s action with its ties to Pittsburgh Penguins’ storylines.

Ultimately, though, he knows high school sports such as postseason wrestling mean more to his channel’s viewers than Olympic results. Especially because those results would be more than a half day old and already chronicled by network coverage by the time a four- to four-and-a-half minute nightly sports segment airs on Channel 6.

In addition, the Olympics fall during a February “sweeps” period for TV stations – meaning ratings and viewership this month shape advertising rates and sales, as well as overall perceptions and marketing strategies, for the next quarter of the year.

“In that way, the Olympics mean even more for us,” Maisel said. “For our sports, though, they’re the thing that gets more people tuning in, and we have to keep them watching with the work we do.”

Noting NBC

n Online viewership of the Winter Olympics has risen dramatically over what was recorded four years ago. Through the first four days, NBC’s digital platforms had attracted nearly 30 million viewers – a 54 percent increase over the Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, four years ago.

n Enthusiastic and informative figure skating analyst Scott Hamilton might have competition for a prime-time assignment on NBC during the next Winter Olympics. Fellow analysts and former skaters Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir have been entertaining and informative (albeit a bit offbeat at times in the case of Weir) in their own right covering figure skating on NBC Sports Network so far this year. They could merit a promotion.

n That said, the wealth of talent under contract at NBC and NBC Sports made the decision about who should replace Bob Costas as prime-time host as a result of his eye infection last week interesting. Instead of selecting Dan Patrick, which would have been the best choice, or even Al Michaels, who might have been steady, NBC went with “Today” host Matt Lauer. He was capable but clearly a step down from Costas and slightly out of his element.

Tuner tidbits

n Qualifying for the Daytona 500 airs on Fox begins at noon today. The race itself is next Sunday.

n Fox Sports 1 will provide coverage of the Budweiser Duels (the two 60-lap races that help shape everything behind the first row for the Daytona 500) at 7 p.m. Thursday.

n The Pirates’ first scheduled spring training game on radio is 1:05 p.m. Feb. 26 vs. the Yankees. The first game on TV is 1:05 p.m. Sunday, March 9, vs. the Red Sox on Root Sports.

n After defeating then-No. 10 Michigan for its first conference victory last week, the Penn State men’s ice hockey team travels to Ann Arbor for a two-game series this week. The first game airs at 7 p.m. Friday on BTN.

n Penn State’s annual Pink Zone effort, which has become one of the nation’s biggest women’s basketball games to raise funds to battle breast cancer, centers around this afternoon’s Lady Lions game vs. Wisconsin (1 p.m., ESPN2).

Steve Sampsell can be reached at talkingtvsports@gmail.com.