Olympics pulls impressive ratings for NBC

7:00 PM PST 03/01/2010 by James Hibberd, AP

Question moving forward is how much network will benefit

In the end, NBC's coverage of the Vancouver Games concluded much as it began: climbing significantly compared with the Peacock's performance during the Turin Games in 2006 but ranking lower than other modern Winter Olympics.

Through 17 nights of coverage, NBC averaged 24.4 million viewers a night, up 21% from 2006. Sunday's Closing Ceremony performed even more impressively compared with Turin, drawing 21.4 million viewers, up 45%.

Despite the impressive numbers, NBC's ratings over the next few days, now that the Olympic torch has been snuffed, will help determine the Games' future on the network.

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, 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."

Public and media reaction to the Games was positive overall. With Team USA topping the medal count and stars including Lindsey Vonn, Shaun White and Apolo Anton Ohno winning gold medals in suspenseful events, plus the men's hockey showdown with Canada for gold Sunday, the Games didn't lack for drama.

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The hockey game, which Canada won 3-2 in overtime, was the most-watched hockey game since the gold medal-clinching USA vs. Finland game in 1980, drawing 27.6 million viewers. In the Great White North, about half of all Canadians tuned in (16.6 million viewers).

The question moving forward is how much NBC will benefit from its coverage, including its role as a launchpad for Jay Leno's return to "The Tonight Show" and other primetime shows.

Certainly in terms of goodwill, NBC has won a gold. Whether the glossy ratings are enough to offset the Leno fiasco and their sagging recent primetime performance, however, remains to be seen.

On Monday, CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves predicted that NBC will keep the Games in its wheelhouse despite it being a money-loser.
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