Olympics 2012: London Games Rank as Most-Watched Event in U.S. History

Olympic Closing Ceremony Arena View - H 2012
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Olympic Closing Ceremony Arena View - H 2012

NBC might have drawn the ire of many viewers, critics and Twitter users during its exclusive two-week coverage of the 2012 London Olympics, but the network likely isn't taking it too hard.

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After 17 days of coverage, the Games took in a total of 219.4 million viewers, according to final Nielsen numbers through Sunday night's Closing Ceremony. That makes it the most-watched event in U.S. television history, topping the previous high of 215 million for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The status was something of a foregone conclusion by the end of last week, with some NBC executives even acknowledging early during the Games that the strong returns had London guaranteed to secure placement among the top five.

Despite criticism over tape delays, generous edits and results spoiled during promos, the network pulled in consistent boosted viewership over the past two Summer Olympics, outpacing Beijing and Athens by double digits. London bested every international outing since the Montreal Games in 1976.

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London 2012 averaged 31.1 million viewers in primetime from July 27-Aug. 12, capping off its consistent gains from four years ago with a 31 million haul during the Closing Ceremony -- the largest for any non-U.S. Summer Games in 36 years. Atlanta in 1996 and Los Angeles in 1984 both were topped in total viewers but still hold advantages in average nightly viewership.

The numbers also have eased the heavy financial burden taken on by the Olympics' TV host. After worries of taking a $200 million loss on the coverage -- NBC's most recent agreement with the International Olympic Committee to secure rights through 2020 cost $4.4 billion -- the network now even stands to make a small profit.

“With ratings and sales increases, we will now be around break even -- no qualifiers,” said NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus. "There's a small chance that we can make a little bit of money. We’ll know over the next couple weeks.”