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Olympics ratings up 16 percent over Turin

NBC desperately needed some good news in prime time and although the Vancouver Games are just three nights old, so far, the Olympics have provided it.
/ Source: The Associated Press

NBC desperately needed some good news in prime time and, so far, the Olympics have provided it.

Through three nights, household ratings for the Vancouver Olympics are up 16 percent over the 2006 games in Turin, Italy, the Nielsen Co. said. NBC was privately expecting an increase in ratings, since Olympics based on this continent that include live events in prime time do better than overseas games, but the Vancouver Games have done especially well.

( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)

The strong numbers won't offset NBC's expected loss of more than $200 million on the Vancouver Games, but ad sales executives say enough customers are responding that the company could make millions more, perhaps tens of millions more, than anticipated.

"The fact of the matter is we are really thrilled by the performance of the Olympics," said Alan Wurtzel, NBC Universal's top research executive.

There's still time to go, and NBC's success so far in working past unexpected changes to the prime-time shows — postponement of Alpine skiing events and Monday's odd delay of speedskating competition because the ice indoors wasn't ready — could catch up.

Yet the early success of the Olympics mirrors a counterintuitive trend: ratings for big events on broadcast television have been soaring even though viewers have many more entertainment options.

The opening ceremony in Vancouver on Friday drew 32.6 million viewers despite its somber mood due to the death of a Georgian luger in a practice run. That was up from the 22.2 million who watched the first night in Turin, Nielsen said.

"I was really surprised at how well the opening ceremony did because there really wasn't that much chatter about it," said Brad Adgate, an analyst for Horizon Media.

The next two nights both had larger audiences than any night in Turin, Nielsen said.

Shows become shared experiencesThat shouldn't be too much of a surprise to people who had been following broadcast trends.

The Super Bowl just set a record for most-viewed U.S. television event of all time, with an audience of 106 million people. NFL conference championships hit viewing levels not seen since the 1980s. World Series games, on average, had six million more viewers last year than in 2008. The Grammy Awards zoomed to 26 million viewers, up from 19 million in 2009. Golden Globes ratings were up 14 percent.

"There are very few big events that enable people to share an experience anymore," Wurtzel said. "There are very few things that people can come in the next day and talk about. I really believe that people are looking for that kind of experience."

Episodic television used to provide it — "Who saw last night's "Seinfeld" or "Cheers?'" But that rarely happens anymore, he said.

The Olympics, he said, are the ultimate reality show.

There are other factors to explain the increased ratings: the proliferation of high-definition television makes watching sports at home that much more appealing. Nielsen is also measuring viewership on digital video recorders, which it didn't four years ago, said Sharianne Brill, a TV analyst formerly of Carat USA.

"People are just home more," Brill said. "Weather has been a factor; there have been a lot of storms. People are unemployed and less likely to go out, and the Olympics provide quality family entertainment."

By showing more thrilling, X Games-inspired events like snowboarding, NBC also is pulling in younger viewers to the Olympics. Viewership among men aged 18-to-34-years-old was up 19 percent through the weekend, Nielsen said.

NBC on Tuesday also unveiled new measurements designed to convince advertisers the advantage of being seen on the Olympics. For example, Google searches of "We Are the World" leaped tenfold right about the time NBC previewed a remake of that video on Friday night, Wurtzel said.