Record ratings for NBC's Olympic opening ceremony

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NBC's Olympic dream of ratings fireworks is coming true.

The network's coverage of the Games got off to a roaring start Friday with an opening ceremony that's trending as the highest-rated non-U.S. summer opener ever.

The Beijing event averaged 34.2 million viewers and received an 18.6 national household rating.

In the nearly 50 years of televised Olympics, that's higher than any previous non-domestic summer opener -- up 35% in viewers from the Athens ceremony in 2004 (25.4 million, 14.6 rating) and 25% higher than Sydney in 2000 (18.5/32). The household rating bested the 1960 Rome Games on CBS (18.1) -- a record that's stood for 48 years, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The mammoth figures weren't quite enough to overturn all opening ceremonies based in the U.S., however. The rating was 14% shy of the Atlanta Games in 1996 (39.8 million, 23.6 rating).

NBC's performance was far above industry expectations. Insiders had estimated that NBC's event last night would drop about 11% from the Athens Games opener. Though public curiosity and media interest in China's opening ceremony has been high, overall broadcast television ratings have fallen 16% since 2004. Viewership for major events such as the Academy Awards have plummeted in recent years.

Plus, NBC has been chided for delaying broadcast of the ceremony until primetime while most nations aired the event live. Yet holding off may have actually aided the show in ways not anticipated by the network. With gushing critic reviews and lavish images saturating the media Friday, many viewers likely tuned in to see if the ceremony could possibly live up to the hype.

By most accounts, viewers of NBC's telecast were as impressed as viewers worldwide. Tom Shales of the Washington Post wrote that "eye-poppers gave way to jaw-droppers, stunners were followed by dazzlers," but THR.com's Barry Garron said NBC all-but ignored the political context of the production.

NBC has claimed more than $1 billion in advertising revenue for the Summer Games and spent $894 million to acquire the U.S. broadcast and digital rights. Whether Friday's performance heralds the beginning of lofty Olympics ratings remains to be seen. NBC's Web site saw its most traffic ever on Friday with 70 million page views -- 10 times more than the opening day of the Athens Games.

In general, however, the opening ceremony isn't necessarily a barometer of how the Games perform overall. And with NBC Universal airing an unprecedented 3,600 hours of Olympic coverage during the 17-day event, comparisons to previous Games may be futile.

"If you track past Olympics by day the first few days of competition are what really tell the tale -- like the second and third episode of a new series," says TV historian Tim Brooks. "Still, it's definitely a good start."

Host Ratings/share Homes*
Athens 2004 14.6/27 16
Sydney 2000 16.2/29 17
Atlanta 1996 23.6/45 23
Barcelona 1992 13.8/29 13
Seoul 1988 15.2/29 14
Los Angeles 1984 23.9/48 20
*In millions
Source: Nielsen

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