More Than A Sporting Chance


Thus far, NBC’s Summer Olympics coverage from Beijing has pulled significant audiences in the first week of its two-week coverage blitz – a clear sign that marquee sporting events on television can still draw huge audiences within a very competitive landscape.

 Led by the gold-medal story line of amazing swimmer Michael Phelps and the gutsy athleticism of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, NBCU TV is averaging nearly 30 million prime time viewers through Aug. 17, 14% above the 26.2 million that tuned in the action through the comparable span in Athens during 2004, according to Nielsen Media Research data. (It’ll be interesting to see if NBC can maintain its ratings momentum now that Phelps is no longer competing in the games.) 

NBC’s primetime performance is particularly impressive considering that consumers have also generated 754.3 million online page views during the first 10 days of the Beijing Games which includes live streaming of events. 

Also, millions more viewers are watching hundreds of additional hours of coverage on NBC Universal’s USA Network, MSNBC and Oxygen or viewing every Kobe Bryant dunk in HD on NBCU’s 24-hour dedicated basketball channel — one of four stand-alone sports and foreign-language channels.

But then again, as we’ve seen over and over this year, nothing delivers more eyeballs at one time than sports programming.

You can talk about viewer fractionalization due to a 500-channel cable environment and the Web siphoning away viewers from traditional television all you want, but there’s nothing on TV today — outside of a national emergency, or possibly a presidential debate — that can bring more Americans to the small screen at the same time than a compelling sports event.

Remember that 97.5 million people didn’t tune in to watch American Idol’s May 21 finale, but they did push the remote-control button to watch the thrilling Feb. 3 Super Bowl between the New York Giants and New England Patriots — the most-watched National Football League game in history and the second most-watched TV show ever. 

The Boston Celtics’ return to glory in defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in the National Basketball Association Finals in six games this past June averaged 14 million viewers, better than the season-ending episodes of Lost or Bones.

Sports remains one of the few genres that can still provide that shared water-cooler experience that we’ve lost in the age of niche programming. In the era of DVRs and YouTube, it’s very unlikely that any scripted or reality series will ever top the 106 million viewers that CBS’s broadcast of the final episode of M*A*S*H drew in 1983. 

But it is conceivable that a 2009 Super Bowl matchup between an undefeated, Brett Favre-led New York Jets team and Favre’s former team, the Green Bay Packers, could approach the record-breaking viewership numbers from the past game. (OK, that might be stretching reality a bit.)

What’s not a stretch is the appeal of compelling and attractive live sports content like the Olympics, and the impact such events continue to have on the overall television viewership landscape.