A way to rate Olympics purely by the numbers

The Olympics may be fading into history, but the wake left by Michael Phelps and other athletes continues to bubble.

Looking at


In attracting 214 million viewers over 17 days, the 2008 Beijing Olympics were watched by more Americans than any event in U.S. television history.


What about “Roots,” the highest-rated miniseries of all time? The story of slavery in America attracted 80 million viewers for each of its first seven nights and 100 million for the final episode for a total of 660 million.

The Olympic total of 214 million, said NBC spokesman Adam Freifeld, was unduplicated viewers. In other words, the majority of the “Roots” audience watched every night. The 2008 Olympics was watched by 214 million different Americans.

In terms of ratings, there is no comparison. The 2008 Olympics had a 16.2 rating (percentage of TV households) and a 28 share (percentage of televisions in use). “Roots” averaged a 44.9 and 66 share with a phenomenal 51.1 rating and 71 share for the final episode. In all, 85% of all television homes in the country watched at least some episodes of “Roots.” But the population wasn’t as big as it is today.

When it comes to sporting events only, what about the World Series?


Twelve World Series going back to 1973 had a higher total than 214 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. But again, most of those were repeat viewers, although the exact total can’t be determined since Nielsen didn’t chart unduplicated viewers until the late 1980s.

The high was 266.5 million for the seven-game series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers in 1982. It drew an average of 38,070,000 per game.

Although the 2008 Olympics had the most viewers, its ratings are another story. They were better than the 2004 Games in Athens (15.0/26) and the 2000 Olympics in Sydney (13.8/24).

But the 1996 Games in Atlanta (21.6/41) and the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona (17.5/34) had better numbers.


In terms of ratings, the best that can be said is that the 2008 Games were the best of the last three. Still, NBC had a huge audience, extended its reach to new broadcast outlets and presented a multilevel platform that took advantage of burgeoning growth in the Internet and mobile devices.

Looking at late night

Even before Phelps had dried off, a behind-the-scenes duel started between late-night shows to secure his appearance and those of other U.S. medalists.

This week, Jay Leno had swimmers Dara Torres and Natalie Coughlin, gymnast Nastia Liukin and wrestler Henry Cejudo. Gymnast Shawn Johnson concludes the parade of Olympians tonight. Even though he’s on a rival network, CBS’ David Letterman picked off his share, getting Johnson, decathlete Bryan Clay and beach volleyballers Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh.


Phelps is the big prize. He’ll be on Leno on Sept. 8, but that’s just a warmup. Phelps’ big splash comes Sept. 13, when he hosts “Saturday Night Live.”

After winning six gold medals at the 2004 Olympics, Phelps retreated into relative obscurity, a celebrity to be sure, but still low-profile enough to be able to walk down the street unrecognized in most cities outside of his hometown, Baltimore.

Punch Phelps’ name in Google now and the result is 10.2 million items.

Looking at Jay


From the Leno monologue: “Now that the Olympics are over, the big question for the Chinese female gymnasts is, what’s next for them?

“I’m guessing . . . puberty.”