The London Olympics drew 219.4 million U.S. viewers, overtaking the 2008 games in Beijing to become the nation’s most watched television event ever, as gold- medal performances by Americans bolstered ratings.
Total viewership topped the 215 million that tuned in to the Beijing broadcast, according to a statement today from Comcast Corp. (CMCSA:US)’s NBC Universal division, which cited Nielsen ratings. NBC sold about $1.25 billion in advertising, beating the $850 million for the 2008 Olympics.
Though NBC drew criticism for not airing more of the games live, showcasing taped events in prime time “undeniably” helped ratings, NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus said. He said he wonders if he should have tape-delayed more events, such as the U.S. men’s gold-medal basketball game and the men’s tennis finals between Andy Murray and Roger Federer, which were live.
“It’s undeniable we hurt our ratings by doing that,” Lazarus said in a phone interview. “We have to balance what we’re trying to do for viewers across the country and our business model.”
The performances of American athletes -- who won a world- best 104 medals, including 46 gold -- also helped drive ratings, said Andy Donchin, director of media investments for Carat North America, an advertising firm.
Despite the criticism over tape-delaying marquee events, including Michael Phelps’s four gold-medal swims and Gabby Douglas’s first-place performance in the women’s gymnastics all- around, NBC successfully persuaded audiences to tune in several hours after the competitions took place.
“In a way, knowing Michael Phelps or Gabby Douglas won a medal may make you watch even more,” said Donchin, who is based in New York. “Even tape delayed, you still want to see it.”
The better-than-expected ratings mean that the broadcaster may turn a profit on the games, Lazarus said. Ad sales beat internal projections by 15 percent to 20 percent, he said. NBC had previously forecast a loss of about $200 million.
The network won’t know if it made money on the event for “several weeks” as it completes its accounting, Greg Hughes, a company spokesman, said in an e-mail.
Advertisers are “very, very happy” with the ratings, Donchin said, a testament to the way event-based television can draw large audiences.
“The main sponsors -- McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, P&G -- this only encourages them to continue their investment,” Donchin said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see several companies that ran commercials during the games to step up and become sponsors the next time around.”
The viewership was helped by a growing population and a wider array of channels showing the Olympics, including MSNBC and Bravo. NBC’s prime-time broadcast averaged 31.1 million viewers. While that was 12 percent higher than the Beijing games and 26 percent above the Athens Olympics in 2004, it ranked below Atlanta in 1996.
NBC, which paid $1.18 billion for the rights to the London Olympics, had initially projected lower ratings versus the Beijing games. The network provided live online coverage of every Olympic event for the first time. Users needed to show that they were a pay-TV subscriber to get access.
NBC may allow more events to be seen by non-cable subscribers in future Olympics, although any new packages will have to be approved by NBC’s cable operator partners, Lazarus said. The next summer games will be held in Rio de Janeiro.
Comcast, the cable-TV provider based in Philadelphia, acquired control of NBC Universal for $13.8 billion in January 2011. The business, which includes TV, film and theme-park units, contributed about 36 percent of Comcast’s sales in the second quarter.
“The ratings from day one exceeded everyone’s expectations,” said Todd Gordon, managing director of Magna Global, the media-buying arm of advertising holding company Interpublic Group of Cos. “The ratings were up so much for Beijing I think people really assumed that beating those ratings weren’t going to be realistic. To exceed those numbers consistently throughout the games was pretty extraordinary.”
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