Winter Olympics pull impressive ratings for NBC

Tue Mar 2, 2010 12:54am EST

An NBC sign on the General Electric building in New York October 5, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Segar

An NBC sign on the General Electric building in New York October 5, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Segar

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - NBC's coverage of the Vancouver Games concluded much as it began: easily outpacing the network's performance during the Turin Games in 2006 but ranking lower than other modern Winter Olympics.

NBC averaged 24.4 million viewers a night, up 21 percent from 2006. Sunday's closing ceremony performed even more impressively compared with Turin, drawing 21.4 million viewers, up 45 percent.

Still, limiting the comparisons to Turin isn't really fair. In 1994, the Winter Games in Lillehammer (43.2 million viewers) averaged nearly double the Vancouver Games. In 2002, Salt Lake City (32 million) also averaged significantly higher viewership, with Nagano in 1998 (25.1 million) running about the same.

A key point of context from NBC's perspective is that when Lillehammer aired on CBS, there were only about 40 channels of TV competition, and the numbers were boosted by the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan skating scandal.

NBC preferred a different ratings benchmark -- the size of the audience that sampled the Games. By this Nielsen standard, which counts the number of viewers who tuned in for at least six minutes, Lillehammer still ruled with 204 million viewers but was followed right behind by Vancouver at 190 million.

"It's important to note how truly dominant our performance is because of the many choices available in the world today," said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics. "Today the average home has 130 channels, more than three times 1994, plus the Internet then was still in its infancy. What makes our performance here even more impressive in this age of so many choices on so many media platforms is the fact that we are averaging more than 2 million more viewers each night than the other three networks combined."

The question moving forward is how much the long-time ratings laggard will benefit from its coverage, including its role as a launch pad for Jay Leno's return to "The Tonight Show" and other primetime shows.

If recent history is an indication, the answer is not much. NBC used its coverage of the Beijing games in 2008, which averaged 27.7 million viewers during primetime, to promote such dramas as "My Own Worst Enemy," "Crusoe" and a remake of "Knight Rider" and the sitcom "Kath & Kim." None lasted long.

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