NBC has best Saturday since 1990

Millions tune in for Michael Phelps' record eighth gold

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NEW YORK -- Michael Phelps' record eighth gold medal catapulted NBC to its best Saturday night ratings since 1990, with almost 40 million tuning in around 11 p.m. EDT to watch Phelps and the U.S. team win the 4x100m medley relay at the Beijing Olympics.

The full Saturday night telecast on NBC averaged 31.1 million viewers, Nielsen Media Research said Sunday. That's up 38% compared with the 22.5 million viewers for the second Saturday during the 2004 Athens Games.

Saturday's telecast averaged a 17.6 household rating/32 share, up 29% compared with 2004's 13.6/26. The peak came after 11 p.m., when 39.9 million viewers saw Phelps and his U.S. teammates win the medley relay. His eighth gold medal is an Olympic record, one ahead of the mark set by fellow American swimmer Mark Spitz in 1972.

NBC said the last time it got an audience that size on a Saturday night was Feb. 24, 1990, when 31.4 million viewers watched "Empty Nest."

Nine days into the Games, NBC's average primetime viewership is 30.1 million viewers, up 15% compared with Athens. Its 17.4/30 household rating/share so far is the best non-U.S. Olympics telecast since 1992 in Barcelona and up 10% from four years ago.

"This event shows the pipes work and that if you put on great programming that people want to watch, then they'll show up," NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker told CNBC on Friday.

NBC says the Beijing Games are on pace to be the most-watched Olympics ever, but whether the interest created by Phelps can be sustained remains to be seen.

NBC also got great ratings Friday night, when Phelps won his sixth and seven gold medals. That coverage averaged 25.6 million viewers, just shy of 2 million more than the 23.7 million who tuned in during the comparable night in Athens. The average household rating of 15.2 rating/28 share was up 6% from Athens' 14.4/27.

The top Olympic market through the nine days of the games is Salt Lake City, with a 24.7/48. Minneapolis-St. Paul and Denver were tied for second at 24.5/45. Los Angeles and San Francisco are tied for 17th with a 20.5 rating; Los Angeles has a 38 share and San Francisco 42.