All That Glimmers Is Gold


Michael Phelps is now etched forever on Mount Olympus.

Aquaman’s eight-gold-medal-pool performance lifted him to the top of the individual Games podium washing away Mark Spitz’s Munich mark in its wake—much to the delight of Dick Ebersol and millions of American TV viewers.

The Lord of Baltimore — with big assists from Jason Lezak’s come-from-behind final lap in the 4×100 freestyle to help pin gold No. 2 and Milorad Cavic (just touch the wall, baby) coming up short in the 100 meter butterfly for No. 7 — captivated the Nielsens and a nation.

‘The Phelps Phenomenon’ helped NBC ring up unexpected ratings that evidently surpassed the 15.0 primetime guarantee the Peacock promised to advertisers and led NBCU CEO Jeff Zucker last week to proclaim the viability of broadcast networks.

Yes, sports and a culturally transcendent performance can bring the national and global communities together. But before anybody gets too giddy, $894 million in rights fees for the 2008 Games is a little more than the cost of sitcoms and dramas.

Still, in a world of viewer fragmentation, there’s no denying NBC’s 17.4 ratings average and 30.1 million viewers for nine primetime Olympic telecasts through Saturday Aug. 16 is most impressive. Indeed, the 17.6 rating/32 share, which translated into 31.1 million viewers was the most for an NBC show on a Saturday night since GoldenGirls’ spinoff Empty Nest in 1990, when the world and TV landscape was a much quainter place.

But if Saturday night was his crowning glory as a member of the 4×100 meter medley relay team, it also marked Phelps’s last night in the Water Cube. And with his primetime co-stars, Natsia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, also finishing their (East Coast live) routines, the second week of the Beijing Games should see a Nielsen fall-off. We’ll get the first sense for just how much when Sunday ratings are released Monday afternoon.