NBC’s Olympic coverage rakes in viewers, profits are another story

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NBC’s 17 nights of coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics from Vancouver averaged 24.4 million viewers in prime time, according to Nielsen. Overall, about 190 million people watched some part of the games on NBC and its cable channels, putting the Vancouver games second in tune-ins only to the 1994 games in Lillehammer, Norway, which were seen by 204 million people.

The 24.4 million audience average is 21% higher than the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.

Although the ratings for NBC’s coverage of the games were the highest since the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the network is still expected to lose about $250 million. Bidding for the 2014 and 2016 games should be heating up in the next year or so. NBC already has the rights to the 2012 Summer Games in London.

What remains to be seen is whether all the promotional spots for NBC’s prime-time lineup that ran during the games will help the network, which has been mired in fourth place this season in viewers and key demographics.


NBC Universal Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol said, ‘It’s important to note how truly dominant our performance is because of the many choices available in the world today.’ Lillehammer may still hold the record, but Ebrsol noted that back then ‘the average home had less than 40 channels’ and today people have an average of 130 channels and a much more robust Internet.

Among the highlights was Sunday’s USA vs. Canada hockey match, which drew 27.6 million viewers, the most to watch a hockey game since the U.S. won the gold in that sport in 1980. The games also beat Fox’s powerhouse ‘American Idol’ twice in viewers and once in adults 18-49.

NBC is pleased about the numbers, but its coverage was not without controversy. The network continued with its practice of offering many events on tape delay in much of the country, which is tougher to do in the Internet era. That led to complaints that the network was not adjusting to today’s media environment and NBC did later carry some key hockey games live across the country.

-- Joe Flint