ABC has clawed its way back into the ratings game, but the

Disney

(DIS) - Get Report

unit continues to ski uphill in the advertising race.

At television's upfront ad show this week, much noise is being made of a primetime ratings decline at

General Electric's

(GE) - Get Report

NBC. The perennial No. 1 network was caught flat-footed this season without replacements for hit shows like

Friends

and

Frasier

.

Yet NBC, which has long commanded premium ad dollars based on its appeal with more affluent viewers, continues to hold the upper hand over ABC, as well as

Viacom's

(VIA.B)

CBS and

News Corp.'s

(NWS) - Get Report

Fox. Its edge lies in the ratings bonanza called the Winter Olympics, which NBC is due to broadcast at the start of 2006.

The network's strong position in the $9.5 billion upfront market shines a spotlight on the challenge that rivals like ABC face in trying to unseat the longtime leader. The upfront competition comes at a particularly delicate time for Disney, where Bob Iger is preparing to take over for longtime Chieftain Michael Eisner and investors are keeping a close eye on the TV operation's progress. ABC's revival helped to fuel Disney's bounce last year, but whether the network can keep it up in the face of tough competition remains an open question.

Indeed, despite efforts at self-effacement and recent blips on its radar screen, NBC still calls the shots in this marketplace.

"We'll use the Olympics to help launch and promote product," says NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker. "We haven't identified that programming yet, but the promotional power of the Olympics is obvious -- it's a boon to the entire network."

At the network's upfront presentation Monday, entertainment president Kevin Reilly was introduced with a video that chronicled last season's programming failures. It showed him reeling to the Doors tune

This Is the End

and reprising the Brando role from

TheStreet Recommends

Apocalypse Now

.

Much more telling, however, was how NBC ended the evening. Oscar winner Jamie Foxx rose from the orchestra pit to sing

America the Beautiful

while images of Olympic glory played on a giant screen behind him.

"You have to remember that they have less need this year," said one buyer with respect to NBC's inventory, thanks to the Olympics.

Ray Warren, director of national broadcast for Omnicom's chief buyer OMD, which boasts several large advertising clients, says NBC "is waiting for others to drop off a little bit. The Olympics are not going to hurt."

Other buyers said that NBC has taken a safe approach that won't put it back on top but also will not see it in fourth place.

"We feel good about where the schedule is," Zucker said. "Anyone who refers to it as safe is seeing it through the prism of us not making any changes on Thursday night."

Zucker and Reilly say they need one red-hot show to put them back on top. When asked which new show has the best shot, Zucker said "they're all important."

NBC will certainly have its work cut out for it if Disney's ABC has anything to say about it. Maintaining a hammerlock on the obvious, Disney-ABC television group president Anne Sweeney pointed out in a presentation Tuesday that "everything in our business starts and ends with our programming." Later in the show comedian Jimmy Kimmel said simply that "it's better when people watch," a reference to the network's successes this past year and struggles previously.

The once-hurting network has improved dramatically with hit series that include

Desperate Housewives

,

Lost

and

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

. Its presentation Tuesday included a hefty slate of promising comedies and dramas including Geena Davis as the first female president in

Commander in Chief

. Leave it to ABC to understand that Hillary can't be president until there's a TV show about Hillary being president.

Meanwhile, NBC will bank on Jerry Bruckheimer's

E-Ring

, a Pentagon drama starring Benjamin Bratt, and an un-NBC like show called

My Name Is Earl

starring a hillbilly who tries to correct his various misdeeds.

Sounds like the Winter Olympics couldn't have come at a better time for NBC.