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August 23, 2008

UPDATE: Beijing Olympics most-watched event in TV history

82488576 UPDATED: NBC says its official: The Beijing Games has become the most-watched U.S. television event of all time.

Through 16 days of coverage, 211 million viewers have watched the Olympics on NBC Universal's broadcast network and cable channels, according to Nielsen Media Research.

That’s 2 million ahead of the 1996 Atlanta Games, the previous all-time record-holder. And with another night of Games coverage to go, including the closing ceremony, NBC Uni expects to wrap up its 17-day run with gold-medal-worthy numbers.

The all-time figure is based on a standard Nielsen measurement that sets a fairly low bar for engagement, however. Any viewer who watches six minutes of coverage qualifies for inclusion. The measurement is often used to determine how many saw a lengthy sporting event where viewers tune in sporadically rather than watch full telecasts from beginning to end. NBC Uni always had a strong chance of setting a new most-viewed benchmark this round due to its unprecedented dedication of 3,600 hours of Games coverage across a multitude of platforms.

The NBC broadcast network also performed well on its own (averaging 27.7 million viewers per night), defying industry expectations by trending 11% higher, than its coverage of the Athens Games four years ago.

NBC's numbers will likely result in greater competition among broadcast companies over the rights to air the Games. With the ratings of so many once-reliable staples of primetime entertainment falling victim to DVR-delayed viewing and an increasingly fractured audience, NBC’s performance suggests the Olympics may be one of the rare events (along with the Super Bowl) impervious to the dramatic media landscape changes of the past few years.

The key question moving forward is whether NBC can retain any of this Olympics viewership going into the fall.

The network has relentlessly aired promos for new shows such as "My Own Worst Enemy" and "Kath and Kim," as well as returning favorites. Sports coverage is not considered a reliable way to drive viewers to entertainment programs. But given NBC's sheer mass of viewership during the Games, the exposure has doubtlessly boosted awareness of the network's fall lineup, if not actual interest.

The first test will be Monday. NBC will run an original "Deal or No Deal" followed by the series premiere of "America's Toughest Jobs," a show that's received heavy promotion during the Games.

With NBC Uni already claiming an ad sales victory lap for its Games ratings, even a modest boost for its entertainment programs could be counted as a mark in the win column.

Note: Some readers in the comments below questioned NBC's claim, asking about historic television events such as the 1977 airing of the miniseries "Roots" or the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. Good questions. NBC analysts say that the U.S. television viewing universe was less than 211 million when those events occurred. Population growth and the increasing availability of television play a major factor here, all but ensuring that this record -- like movie box office tallies that don't account for inflation-- will continue fall as the years pass ... so, yes, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin have been trumped by Michael Phelps and Nastia Liukin.

-- Hollywood Reporter's Beijing Games coverage --

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