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Olympics

Game of Thrones: NBC's Olympic Ratings Momentum Is Unstoppable

London Games beat Beijing for 4th straight night

Federica Pellegrini of Italy, Missy Franklin (C) of the United States and Veronika Popova of Russia. Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

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NBC’s coverage of the 2012 London Olympics continues to deliver huge ratings, topping the Beijing numbers for the fourth night in a row.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, NBC averaged 31.6 million total viewers with its Monday prime-time Olympics coverage, marking a 5 percent improvement versus the 30.2 million fans who tuned in for the comparable evening during the 2008 Beijing Games.

Earlier Tuesday, NBC appeared to have slipped a bit, as Nielsen overnights pointed to a 20.1 rating/32 share, down 5 percent from a 21.2/33 four years ago. Based on a sample of 56 major markets around the country, overnights only illuminate part of the ratings picture.

The fourth consecutive ratings increase coincides with an ongoing protest by critics of NBC’s live streaming/tape-delay strategy. Four years ago, NBC not only had the luxury of airing live coverage of the marquee events, but it also had an easily digestible narrative in U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps’ quest for a record eight gold medals.

While Monday night’s tape-delayed package featured 17-year-old phenom Missy Franklin taking the gold in the 100-meter backstroke, much of the program likely disappointed Team USA partisans. Ryan “My Time” Lochte finished out of the medals in the 200-meter freestyle, and the men’s gymnastics squad never got off the mat, closing out the team final in fifth place.

Franklin’s big win was clearly the highlight of the evening for American viewers, although NBC did take a lot of the luster out of her performance. Immediately after NBC’s Dan Hicks teased Franklin’s swim, a promo for Tuesday morning’s installment of the Today show aired, punctuated by the following voiceover: “When you’re 17 years old and win your first gold medal, there’s nobody you’d rather share it with. We’re there when Missy Franklin and her parents reunite.”

Oof.

When the studio threw back to Hicks (who was obviously calling the race live to tape), he set the stage by announcing, “Missy Franklin just moments away from her first Olympic final...Missy Franklin goes for her first individual gold medal.” 

While it was apparent that the Today promo was not intended to air in that slot, the miscue only served to further arouse anti-NBC sentiment on Twitter. Among the thousands of sardonic 140-character messages that greeted the reveal was this, care of New York Times political reporter Jeremy W. Peters: “NBC just ran a Today promo about Missy Franklin winning gold seconds before they showed her race #fail.”

Speaking of Today, while the on-site coverage has given the morning show a ratings boost when compared to non-Olympic deliveries, the numbers aren’t as strong as they were four years ago in Beijing. According to Nielsen affiliate ratings, Today on Monday averaged 5.6 million viewers, of which 2.4 million were members of the target demo (adults 25-to-54). That marks a 14 percent drop from 6.5 million viewers versus the first Monday in Beijing and a 14 percent decline in the demo.

That said, yesterday’s installment of Today eclipsed the August 23 broadcast, improving among total viewers by a 24 percent margin, while growing the demo a whopping 41 percent.

Meanwhile, NBC’s financial picture continues to brighten. Whereas the network entered the 2012 Games anticipating a net loss—analysts expected NBC would lose between $100 million and $200 million on London, given revenue of $1.1 billion and an estimated $100 million in production costs—there is now a very real chance that NBC could break even. When nearly $260 million in affiliate and digital ad revenue is added to NBC's $1 billion in national TV inventory, that comes very close to balancing out the $1.28 billion the company invested in rights fees and production expenses.

Speaking to SportsBusiness Daily reporter John Ourand in London last night, NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus ably defended the Peacock’s much-decried streaming/tape-delay strategy. “As programmers, we are charged to manage the business. And this is a business,” Lazarus said. “It’s not everyone’s inalienable right to get whatever they want. We are charged with making smart decisions for our company, for our shareholders and to present the product the way we believe is best.”

Incidentally, no one appears more surprised by the ratings than Lazarus. Speaking to reporters from NBC's Studio 8H a month ago, Lazarus allowed that the prospect of topping Beijing’s deliveries was “an unlikely scenario.” At the same time, NBCU president of research and development Alan Wurtzel said he believed the London games would stand among the top five TV events of all time.