NBC Universal smashed yet another historic ratings benchmark: The Beijing Olympics is the most-watched U.S. television event of all time.
Through 16 days of coverage, 211 million viewers tuned in to the Olympics on NBC Universal's broadcast and cable outlets, according to NBC citing Nielsen Media Research.
(Msnbc.com is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
That's 2 million more than watched the 1996 Atlanta Games, the previous all-time record-holder. And with Sunday's Games coverage and closing ceremony, NBC Universal expects to wrap up its 17-day run with gold-medal-worthy numbers. The company stands a strong chance of setting a new most-viewed benchmark thanks to its unprecedented dedication of 3,600 hours of Games coverage across a multitude of platforms.
In Beijing, the final day of the Games drew nearly all of China's 1.3 billion people to their televisions, making it "likely to be the most widely watched Games in Olympic history," according to International Olympics Committee president Jacques Rogge.
"We had more broadcast coverage to more people, in more places than ever," Rogge said in his closing press conference Sunday in the Chinese capital.
Over the past 16 days, images of China's transformed capital were beamed into primetime in the U.S., the world's second-largest television market in terms of number of viewers, by NBC, which paid $894 million for the exclusive U.S. broadcast rights, from which it says it has garnered more than $1 billion in advertising revenue.
The broadcast network's strong ratings, averaging 27.7 million viewers per night, defied industry expectations by trending 11 percent higher than its coverage of the Athens Games four years ago.
The numbers will likely result in greater competition among broadcast companies for rights to air the Games. With the ratings of so many once reliable staples of primetime entertainment falling victim to DVR-delayed viewing and an increasingly fractured audience, NBC's performance suggests that the Olympics may be one of the few events (along with the Super Bowl) that's impervious to the dramatic media landscape changes of the past few years.
Must-watch TVData from Nielsen Media Research shows that 96 percent of Chinese families watched at least some portion of the Olympics on China Central Television, the country's primary state-run broadcaster. Those viewers were rewarded with a record-shattering 51 gold medals for the home nation. The U.S. finished with a higher number of medals, 110 to China's 100.
CCTV paid about $17 million for exclusive broadcast rights in China, against an estimated $394 million in Olympic advertising revenue, according to Group M, a media buyer that tracks television advertising revenue in China.
Rogge defended the Olympics governing body's decision to hold the XXIX Olympiad in a world capital whose government is widely criticized for denying its citizens freedom of expression. Of the 77 applications filed to stage protests in three approved zones in Beijing during the Games, none was approved.
"The IOC and the Olympic Games cannot force changes on sovereign nations or solve all the ills of the world. But we can -- and we do -- contribute to positive change through sport," Rogge said.
Coverage of many final sports contests continued throughout the day. Just past 1 p.m. local time in Beijing, flagship channel CCTV-1 broadcast a glowing profile of local hero Zou Shiming, the light flyweight boxer. But before viewers knew it, Zou's bout was over as Serdamba Purevdorj of Mongolia bowed out in the first seconds of the second round with a hurt shoulder. The anticlimax saw CCTV switch back to ads from dairy giant Yili and an oft-repeated Olympics highlights montage set to swelling music.
The montage included footage of spectacular performances by American swimmer Michael Phelps -- who won an Olympic record eight gold medals -- and by Jamaican Usain Bolt, the first man to win and set world records in both the 100- and 200-meter sprints at an Olympics.
Passing the batonAfter a speech thanking the world for sharing the Olympic dream with Beijing, the capital's former mayor, Liu Qi, handed the Olympic flag to Rogge, who passed it to Mayor Boris Johnson of London, which will host the 2012 Games.
As part of the handover-to-London presentation, soccer star David Beckham rose from a double-decker London bus circling the athletics track to kick a soccer ball into a teeming crowd of Chinese performers swarming over the field.
The Beijing Olympics set the stage for the future of sportscasting in China, with dedicated sports channel CCTV-5, led by CEO Jiang Heping, gearing up to realize a deal announced in July for a 20-year exclusive media partnership with New York-based sports marketing giant IMG Worldwide.
The Games also brought to light increasingly competitive efforts by global media and marketing companies trying to reach China's gigantic TV audience.
Over the course of the Games, CCTV broadcast a variety of Olympic features and live programming on seven of its 18 channels, including flagship CCTV-1 and agricultural channel CCTV-7, which is geared to reach 800 million Chinese viewers who live in the countryside.
As for NBC, the key question is how much of its Olympics viewership the network can retain going into the fall.
The network has relentlessly aired promos for new shows such as "My Own Worst Enemy" and "Kath and Kim," as well as returning favorites. But sports coverage has not been a reliable way to drive viewers to entertainment programs.
The first test will be Monday. NBC will run an original "Deal or No Deal" followed by the series premiere of "America's Toughest Jobs," a reality show that has received considerable promotion during the Games.
With NBC Universal already claiming an ad-sales victory lap for its Games ratings, even a modest boost for its entertainment programs could be counted as a mark in the win column.