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As Olympics loom, NBC leads in the race for prized viewers

Jan 28 (Reuters) - Comcast Corp's NBC network, for years a ratings laggard, is ahead in a key contest among broadcasters even before it attracts millions of viewers this month to its marquee event, the Winter Olympics.

"The Blacklist," which stars James Spader as a master criminal who helps the FBI, and the second-year drama "Chicago Fire" have pushed NBC into the lead among viewers 18 to 49, the group most prized by advertisers.

NBC will begin its Olympics telecast on Feb. 6 from Sochi, Russia, boosting ratings and giving the network its biggest opportunity this season to promote its regular primetime lineup.

The network's overall ratings increased by 11 percent this season from a year earlier, to 9.2 million primetime viewers on average, according to the Nielsen ratings agency.

That helped increase operating cash flow at Comcast's broadcast segment by 54.8 percent to $140 million in the fourth quarter, the cable giant said on Tuesday. Revenue increased by 11.5 percent, to $2.2 billion in the quarter.

"The turnaround in broadcast is happening even faster than we had anticipated," Comcast Chief Executive Officer Brian Roberts said in an earnings conference call with analysts.

To lift the network out of the ratings basement, NBC in 2010 named Bob Greenblatt as its entertainment chairman, hiring him from premium CBS-owned cable channel Showtime after his success with shows including serial killer drama "Dexter" and "Weeds," about a pot-dealing suburban mom. At NBC, Greenblatt added a fall season of popular singing contest "The Voice," which he used as a lead-in to launch the drama "Revolution" last season and "Blacklist" this season.

For the season that ended in May 2013, NBC finished fourth among the major broadcasters and third among ages 18 to 49.

NBC now ranks second in overall viewers after CBS, which is averaging 11.4 million viewers through Jan. 26, according to Nielsen. The agency counts viewers as those who watch live or recorded programs up to seven days later.

Among viewers aged 18 to 49, NBC averages nearly 3.7 million viewers, ahead of 3.3 million for CBS. The numbers include its Sunday night NFL telecasts.

"There's little question that NBC has been turned around," said Tom Eagan, an analyst Northland Securities, who rates Comcast "outperform."

"Blacklist," starring James Spader as one of the FBI's most-wanted fugitives, is the season's top-rated new series and 12th overall, attracting an average of 14.1 million viewers.

"Chicago Fire" improved Tuesday 10 p.m. ratings by 21 percent, according to Nielsen figures made available by NBC. Its audience averages 10.6 million.

"We have some real momentum this year," said NBC's Greenblatt said on Jan. 19 at a Television Critics Association meeting, where the network promoted its upcoming shows. The network is entering year three of a three- to five-year turnaround effort, he said.

Greenblatt acknowledged programming challenges on Thursday night, where comedies including "The Michael J. Fox Show" have scored low ratings. He said NBC had taken steps to avoid a repeat of last season, when it enjoyed a strong fall only to see ratings drop after "Sunday Night Football" ended, and "The Voice" and "Revolution" took a break for several weeks mid-season.

This year, "Blacklist" is staying on the air through January, and NBC debuted "Chicago Fire" spinoff "Chicago P.D." on Jan. 8.

"The Voice" will return after the Olympics, on Feb. 24.

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