Olympics draw 219 million viewers for NBC

Number sets record as most-watched TV event

By any measure, the London Olympics were pure gold for NBC-Universal.

Viewership of Sunday’s Closing Ceremony capped two weeks of higher-than-expected turnout for the Games — a bonus that couldn’t have come at a better time for the NBC broadcast network. An average of 31 million viewers watched Sunday’s primetime coverage of the starry four-hour extravaganza, up 12% over the closer for the Beijing Games.

For the two-week frame, average Olympics primetime viewership on NBC alone was 31.1 million, 12% over Beijing and the highest mark for a non-U.S. Summer Games since 1976 (Montreal). The most-watched event overall was the Opening Ceremony, which reeled in 41 million viewers.

According to Nielsen, Olympics coverage across all NBCU TV platforms garnered 219 million unique viewers, making this Olympiad the most-watched event in smallscreen history in aggregate, the Peacock touted.

In the apples-to-apples measure of viewership on the NBC mothership, the solid numbers out of Blighty help vindicate NBCU’s decision to invest big in Olympics rights for the foreseeable future. The London rights alone cost $1.18 billion, and NBCU execs made an effort to manage expectations with predictions that the conglom could incur as much as a $200 million loss for the Games. About halfway through the London sprint, NBC Sports topper Mark Lazarus declared that NBCU would likely break even on the Games.

“The London Olympics exceeded all our expectations in viewership, digital consumption and revenue,” said NBCU CEO Steve Burke. “Every part of our company contributed to our success, once again showing how effective we can be when we all get together to support a large project.”

Coverage was spread across NBC, Bravo, CNBC, MSNBC, NBC Sports Network and Telemundo, as well as streaming on NBCOlympics.com. NBC Sports Network, the cable home of the NHL and which the Peacock hopes will become a destination for sports viewers, also enjoyed vital exposure.

There were many complaints in social media circles that NBC was airing events on tape delay, but the controversy and complaints had little negative effect on ratings. Indeed, NBC countered that the media buzz about the coverage actually encouraged more people to tune in.

The BBC was also naturally buoyed by the hometown event. The Closing Ceremonies averaged 26.3 million viewers compared to 26.9 million for the Opening Ceremonies. All told, the pubcaster said its coverage reached 51.9 million people in the U.K., representing 90.4% of the country’s population.

NBC was clearly helped by the success of the U.S. teams. The Americans won 104 medals, including 46 gold. Prior to the Games, the network had focused on several high-profile athletes such as swimmers Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, and both came through with winning performances.

Swimmers, in fact, brought home 31 gold medals — more than in any other sport — and races in the pool were highlights the first few days of the Olympics and helped bring in an initial audience. Once those viewers tuned in, the ratings momentum continued throughout the Games.

The Games also had a halo effect on other NBC properties. “Today,” which has been in a horse race in recent months with ABC’s “Good Morning America,” dominated in the ayem, and “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” also posted record returns. Even newsmagazine “Access Hollywood” saw its best ratings since 2008.

Salt Lake City saw the highest ratings of any U.S. city for primetime coverage.

Net has the rights to the next four Olympics — 2014 in Sochi, Russia; 2016 in Rio de Janeiro; 2018 in South Korea; and an undetermined locale for the 2020 Games.

NBC will have its hands full with the Sochi Games. Not only will the weather be bitter cold and the Games held halfway around the world, the time difference will create additional headaches.

With this edition of the Olympics complete, NBC is counting on the record viewers who tuned in to stay for the net’s new fall offerings. It aired hundreds of promos for new series over the 17 days, and the net televised sneak previews for the pilots of “Go On” and “Animal Practice.”