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OVER THE 17 days of the 2008 Olympics, 215 million Americans—better than 70% of the population—tuned in to the Games on NBC. The official figure had been a mere 214 million until about two months after the closing ceremonies when, out of the clear October sky, NBC got a note from Nielsen saying that they had reexamined their findings and adjusted the total. "Around here," says Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports, "we call that the day we found the missing million."
This was but a sweet lagniappe for the network, which had far surpassed its pre-Olympics estimates (as well as its viewership guarantees to advertisers) in what wound up as the most watched sporting event ever. Six million more people tuned in to this year's Games than saw the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta; viewership was up 12 million over Athens in 2004. For the first summer since '02 broadcast television, riding the Peacock's tail, saw its share of the prime-time audience grow against cable's.
A confluence of events drove the ratings: a sour economy, with bulging gas prices, that kept people at home, close to the tube; the heavy intrigue in China, stoked by the eerie magnificence of its 15,000 performers in the opening ceremonies; and, of course, that kid from Baltimore swimming for gold night after night after night. Eighty-two percent of the U.S., everywhere but the Mountain and the Pacific time zones, could see Michael Phelps swim live.
"We still live in a star-driven world," says Ebersol, who pushed the IOC to get swimming and gymnastics live in prime time. "If Phelps isn't chasing Mark Spitz's record for gold medals, these Olympics would not have mesmerized the country the way they did."
Phelps was also a big lure to the network's website nbcolympics.com, which streamed live video of every event in 25 of the Games' 34 sports and offered marquee competitions (swimming, gymnastics, track) after they'd aired on TV. Here's where the numbers get interesting. The site drew 52 million unique users, double what it had in Athens. Of the 3,600 hours that NBC and its affiliates broadcast during the Olympics, 2,200 streamed on the Web, a number that grew exponentially as users delved into replays and highlight packages.
The Web move was groundbreaking in its breadth and character. Streaming video, taken from the IOC's neutral feed, was often accompanied only by basic graphics (the score, the time) and audio consisting of an event's ambient sound—the whiffling of an arrow through the air, the wheezing of a bike uphill. On-demand Web viewing gave users unprecedented control over what they saw and when they saw it. And yet tens of millions more people watched the Olympics on TV than watched online. Of the nearly $900 million that NBC reaped in ad revenue during the Games, less than $20 million came from the Internet.
So, the future may be visible, but it is not yet at hand. Fourteen months from now in Vancouver, core sports like figure skating, short-track skating and Alpine skiing (on tape delay) will, as ever, be shown first on NBC, in prime time. The Web will again have live-stream coverage of the less popular sports and will be positioned to slake almost any thirst for Olympic action. But the biggest Olympic moments in the most beloved sports will unfold on the same device where Howdy Doody did: your TV.