NBC Has the Last Laugh as Olympics Strike Gold

London Games the most-watched U.S. TV event in history

The games of the XXX Olympiad ended on yet another high note, as the 17-night extravaganza now stands as the most-watched event in U.S. television history.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, NBC’s coverage of the 2012 London Summer Olympics drew 219.4 million total viewers, edging the Beijing Games by 4.4 million viewers, or 2 percent.

For the sake of context, the U.S. Census Bureau pegs the population at 311.6 million people, which means that more than two-thirds (70 percent) of all Americans watched at least part of the games.

With an average 31.1 million viewers tuning in over the course of the London Games, NBC delivered the most-watched non-U.S. Summer Olympics package since Montreal (1976). The network also beat the blockbuster Beijing event by 12 percent—this after NBC executives had projected a 20 percent decline from four years ago.

If disgruntled fans were surprised at NBC’s ratings performance—more on that in a bit—perhaps no one was more shocked by the Nielsen data than Alan Wurtzel. The president of research and media development at NBCUniversal on Thursday said the network’s momentum was “extraordinary,” especially when one considers the advantages it enjoyed in Beijing.

“There was a certain aura surrounding Beijing that was really seductive, [and] there were a lot of events that were live in prime time,” Wurtzel said. “I don’t think anybody thought we would come close to Beijing.”

A month before the July 27 Opening Ceremonies, Wurtzel told the press that he believed NBC ultimately would reach around 200 million viewers.

Because NBC lowballed its initial ratings guarantees, it was in a position to free up a chunk of inventory that had been set aside for make-goods or ADUs (audience deficiency units). And while the cost of the average 30-second spot in prime time worked out to around $725,000, advertisers who slipped in after others had shouldered the burden of risk were charged a premium.

Before the games began, NBC had booked north of $1 billion in ad inventory, atop which it sprinkled another $300 million in affiliate and digital revenue. In the final analysis, NBC is expected to make a small profit from its $1.28 billion investment, this after having approached the Olympics anticipating a $200 million net loss.

Sunday night’s closing ceremony was the most-watched capper for a non-U.S. Olympics in 36 years. Per Nielsen, the Brit Pop-saturated finale averaged 31 million viewers and a 9.2 rating in the demo.

While fans fumed about yet another programming delay—NBC held off a performance by The Who so it could air a preview of another of its fall comedies—even the roar of the Twitterati didn’t seem to have an impact on Sunday night’s ratings. The commercial-free broadcast of Animal Practice averaged 12.8 million viewers and a 4.1 in the demo, retaining approximately 47 percent of its 10:30 lead-in (27.1 million viewers/8.4).

NBC’s decision to interrupt its own tape-delayed coverage of the closing ceremony echoed a similar move during the tail end of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Looking to drive sampling of a new Jerry Seinfeld project, NBC delayed airing musical performances by the likes of Nickelback and Avril Lavigne in order to give viewers an advance look at The Marriage Ref.

Despite protests from fans of Canadian whinge rock, The Marriage Ref drew 14.5 million viewers and a 4.8 in the demo. Unfortunately, the show wasn’t compelling enough to build on those early deliveries, and at the end of its first season it had dwindled to an average audience of 5.86 million viewers and a 2.4 in the demo.

When NBC returned to London following the 22-minute Animal Practice pilot, viewers were treated to an eight-minute send-off by The Who and a closing montage. Before signing off for good, NBC’s Bob Costas acknowledged that this would be the final games for deposed NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol, who spearheaded the coverage of nine Olympics for the Peacock, going back to 1992.

“[Ebersol] is, along with Roone Arledge and Jim McKay, one of the three most important figures in the history of Olympics television,” Costas said, adding that Ebersol’s influence “can’t be overstated.”

Recommended articles