World audience huge for Games opener

China breaks record; German viewership lackluster

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UPDATED: August 12, 2008, 1:45 a.m. ET

BEIJING -- The size of the television audience for the live broadcast of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony reflected a wide spread of viewer interest around the world, from a record-breaking market share in China to near-ambivalence in Germany.

Competing poll data shows that the four-hour TV spectacle Friday night drew between 63% and 68.8% of China's total audience, smashing a 51%-58% market share record previously held each year by the Chinese New Year gala broadcast in the spring.

China, with a population of 1.3 billion served largely by state-controlled broadcasters, is forecast to overtake Japan as the world's second-largest advertising market by 2010. Its three biggest markets -- the capital, Beijing, the biggest city, Shanghai, and Guangdong province -- average TV penetration of 98.7% of residents.

AGB Nielsen said 62.3%, or 387 million of Chinese it polls in 14 TV markets, watched the spectacular display of national culture designed by film director Zhang Yimou.

The Shanghai office of AGB Nielsen Media Research, which is 50% owned by The Nielsen Company, polled 14,000 households representing a population of 623 million residents of China's most affluent cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing and Wuhan) and provinces (Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Shandong, Fujian, Liaoning, Hunan, Sichuan and Anhui).

From 8 p.m. until midnight, an average of 39.5% of all individual TV viewers in its polling area -- most of whom live on China's affluent eastern seaboard -- were tuned in to the event at any given time via one of seven CCTV channels or 82 other channels allowed by the Games organizers to carry the event featuring frequent appearances by Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Competing poll data from CSM Media Research -- a partnership between London-based TNS Group and CCTV-affiliated CTR Market Research -- showed that the event drew a higher overall market share of 68.8%, representing 842 million of China's population of 1.3 billion.

U.S. rights-holder NBC delayed telecasting the event for 12 hours in order to reach the larger primetime audience. The gamble paid off, as word of the spectacular production saturated the U.S. media Friday and made the telecast a must-see event.

The resulting ratings were far better than TV industry insiders had expected -- or that the network's own executives had dared hope. The broadcast from Beijing was the most-viewed and highest-rated non-U.S. Summer Olympics opening ceremony ever, averaging 34.2 million viewers and receiving an 18.6 national household rating.

That's 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 managed to best the 1960 Rome Games on CBS (18.1) -- a record that's stood for 48 years, according to Nielsen Media Research.

In Britain -- despite, or perhaps because of, months of TV coverage of the troubled global tour of the Olympic flame -- more than 50% of all television viewers tuned in on BBC1, making up an audience of just under 5.5 million viewers. A further 700,000 watched live on the BBC website.

Due to the seven-hour time lag, this was lower than the 9 million Brits who watched the Athens Olympics opening ceremony in 2004.

As host nation for the 2012 Olympics in London, Britain could only look on in awe at the $100 million spent on the Beijing extravaganza, considerably more than the British authorities have committed to London's opening fest.

"We are not daunted; we are really, really excited. What an inspirational show," said Paul Deighton, CEO of London’s Olympic organizing committee. "We can't wait to get started on our welcome to London in four years' time."

In Australia, the Seven Network said the event drew an average audience of over 3.3 million viewers in the country's five state capitals. Aussies stayed up late to watch the full ceremony, which aired from 10 p.m.-2:17 a.m. local time and gave Seven a 52% prime time share.

Seven said the national audience peaked at 5.9 million. That makes Beijing's the second-most-watched Olympics opening ceremony in Australia, behind Sydney's in 2000, when 7.3 million viewers watched the opening ceremony live that year, while 2.3 million watched the Athens ceremony on delay.

In Germany -- where protests dogged the Olympic flame's passage through Europe -- 7.72 million people watched the opening ceremony live shortly before 2 p.m. CET Friday, reaching a high 52.3% market share, pubcaster ARD's ratings showed.

This paled in comparison with the France vs. Italy 2006 soccer World Cup final, when 84.1%, or 29.66 million people, tuned in. An indication of the lackluster interest was seen in the 16.7% market share drawn by "Olympia Live" an hour before the opening -- less than both the evening news and a quiz show.

In France, nearly one in two viewers watched the event live through the mid-afternoon on pubcaster France 2. It was preceded by an exclusive interview with President Nicolas Sarkozy from Beijing in which he said he raised the issue of human rights during successive meetings with Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

That broadcast drew 4.4 million viewers and gave France 2 a market share of 36.8%, according to audience measurement body Mediametrie.

In Italy, RAI drew a 49% share of the market, reaching 5.5 million viewers. Editors in Beijing said that while covering the Athens Olympics was easier and drew a slightly higher rating because of Greece's time zone proximity to Italy, the Beijing event was much better for RAI than Sydney, when most was aired prerecorded.

The Hollywood Reporter is owned by The Nielsen Co.

Pip Bulbeck in Sydney, Karen Chu in Hong Kong, Bonnie J. Gordon in Munich, James Hibberd in Los Angeles, Charles Masters in Paris and Mimi Turner in London contributed to this report.