First two days of Winter Games average 30 million viewers

Ratings for the Vancouver Olympics Winter Games on NBC remained strong on Saturday, and the opening two nights from Canada — as expected — are well ahead of the early pace set four years ago for the Torino Games.

According to preliminary Nielsen estimates, NBC’s primetime Olympics coverage on Saturday averaged 26.2 million viewers — 13% more than the 23.3 million on the comparable night in 2006 and a larger audience than any night from Torino. While Saturday’s coverage focused heavily on popular U.S. speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, it did not feature figure skating, as the Torino Games did four years ago.

The big Saturday showing came one night after the Opening Ceremonies averaged an impressive 32.6 million viewers — well ahead of the 22.2 million who watched the first night from Torino. Over the last 20 years, the best starts for the Winter Games came in 2002 (45.6 million from Salt Lake City) and 1994 (33.8 million from Lillehammer).

The two-night average of 30 million is 33% higher than Torino (22.6 million) and is the best for a Winter Games outside the United States since Lillehammer (39.9 million).

The top local market scores for the first two nights from Vancouver came from Milwaukee (22.2 household rating/38 share), followed by Salt Lake City (21.4/38) and Minneapolis (21.3/39). NBC also notes that the Mountain time zone has produced the highest overnight average (19.9/35), compared to a 17.8/34 for the Pacific, a 17.3/29 for Central and a 17.2/28 for Eastern.

NBC’s broadcast rivals largely rolled over the first two nights of these Games, but stepped it up considerably on Sunday when CBS aired a reality block of “The Amazing Race” and “Undercover Boss” and ABC went with two hours of reality favorites “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” And this coming week, the Olympics will face tough competition that includes “American Idol,” “Lost,” “Survivor” and “The Bachelor.”

NBC is expecting to lose north of $200 million for its coverage of the Vancouver Games, even though ratings were projected to be strong due to Vancouver’s proximity to the States and predictions of a strong medal performance for the United States.

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