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TV ratings R us

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Last night, the Winter Games were made to order for TV ratings. Two luscious and photogenic young couples, Canada and U.S.A., duked it out for the gold, while U.S.A. and Russia slugged over the bronze. Re the win, judging looked to be spot on -- it was suspect only where the Russians squeaked into 3rd despite their hideous costumes and weak performance.

This morning, the Star-Ledger's Alan Sepinwall analyzes the ratings: "Through Saturday night, NBC's prime-time coverage has averaged 26.3 million viewers a night. That's way up from the 20.6 million for the 2006 Torino Games."

Sepinwall continues: "One piece of research suggested that half of all Americans had watched at least some of the games over the first week. ...Hit shows like '24,' 'Lost' and 'Grey's Anatomy' have seen their numbers go down .... And last Wednesday, NBC's coverage drew more than 30 million viewers to only 18.6 for 'American Idol.'"

So -- why are Americans watching so avidly, after previous Games showed a slackening of interest in these commercially overblown events?

Vancouver has been dubbed "the feel-good Olympics." Feel good for Americans, that is. Our sports stars are bringing home the Canadian bacon -- not only a bobsled full of medals, but a whole mountain-range of human-interest stories, thanks to broadcast strategy that aims to deliver human-interest stories spotlighting Americans. NBC couldn't have done better if it had been able to script every single sports result. As it was, we viewers get the tears, fears and jeers, the happy faces singing national anthems, and hip sports fashions that would look good on the red carpet.

So why are so many Americans suddenly so avid for sports stories? Could it have anything to do with how bad we've felt about our country for the last few years? Can that heap of medals (25 of them by this morning) fill that vast cavity growing in our global prestige? Can the wins of our alpine ski team be a momentary substitute for victory in Afghanistan and Iraq? Is the drama around Lindsey Vonn's injury a diversion from our politicians' refusal to improve healthcare? For a few more days, can American TV viewers escape into an illusion that things aren't really as bad as they really are?

Ironically, the personal reality of the athletes themselves -- their very real struggles with winning and losing, which deserve the ultimate respect -- is happening on a radically different plane from the soap opera that media policy-makers are making up as they go along.

I'd love to see a ratings breakdown on LGBT American viewers, as we wonder how many more of us are competing behind that feel-good facade -- that pretty picture where God's in his heaven, gays are in the closet where they belong, and all's right with the world.