Winter Olympics Warming the Hearts of Millions of TV Viewers

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Byline: By GARETH MORGAN AND PAUL CAREY Western Mail

As a nation we don't tend to deal with snow very well, as the chaos caused by the lightest sprinkling proves every winter. But bring on insane-looking ski jumps, hurtling bobsleighs and ladies with brooms on ice, and it seems we suddenly can't get enough of the white stuff. Especially when we get to watch events called 'skeleton'. It has led to the BBC celebrating bumper viewing figures and an audience hooked on bizarre sports. Admittedly, the Winter Olympics remain a niche interest in a nation obsessed with its winter ball games like rugby and football. But it is difficult to avoid watching just a little bit of the curling, or perhaps a bit of new-fangled snow boarding, or risking a giggle at the ice dancers. Next thing you know, you're hooked, and you're one of millions of people across the UK who have spent a whole evening trying to work out the rules to alien sports. Give us a hero and we will get behind them, no matter what the discipline - practically every single Winter Games has thrown up a big story in the UK, from ski jumper Eddie 'The Eagle' Edwards to Rhona Martin and her curling team. Little surprise that this year BBC Two has 100 hours of exclusive coverage over the 17 days, and digital viewers can enjoy a ridiculous 500 hours of programming, which is up to 15 hours a day. Interest is not always high, but remember Torvill and Dean's return to action in 1994, for which 24 million viewers tuned in, and the six million who watched the Brits capture gold in the 2002 women's curling event. The Torvill and Dean audience was the second-highest the BBC attracted in the whole of the 1990s, a remarkable feat. The average number of viewers in 2002 was 1.5m. Given that the live coverage for this year's event will principally fall in prime time, the BBC hopes at least to double the average number of viewers, and latest reports suggest that the UK audience is about 3.1m. Not bad considering this is around twice the number that tune into a Premiership football match. 'It is the first Games since 1994 in the European time zone, which clearly helps,' said Dave Gordon, the BBC's head of major events, now presiding over his fourth Winter Games. 'But there is a genuine feeling that the appeal of the event is also on the rise.' Steve Cram, former 1500 metres athletics champion, is part of the presenting team and agreed that the appeal of the Winter Olympics is broadening. …