Phelps: Games Changer

Publish date:
Updated on

In Beijing, it was the Phelps Phenomenon. In London, it’s merely the Phelps Phactor.

Four years ago, Michael Phelps captivated the world, winning eight gold medals in China. The Baltimore Bullet’s amazing performance was an integral part of what NBCU research president Alan Wurtzel called “the perfect storm” for Olympic ratings that also included a time-zone differential from Asia that placed many key events in east coast primetime and a U.S. team that won more medals than any other delegation, outside the Soviet boycotted-1984 LA Games.

It was that puissant combination NBCU CEO Steve Burke said on a second-quarter earnings call on Aug. 1 that led the programmer’s executives to believe that the 2008 Beijing Games represented a “high water mark” for Olympic viewing and model its projections on the 2004 Athens Games. NBC averaged 27.7 million primetime viewers in Beijing and 24.6 million four years earlier with its coverage from the original site of the Olympics.

Well, Phelps, Ryan Lochte and 17-year-old Missy Franklin, as well as Gabby Douglas, the women’s all around champion, and other members of Fab Five that took home the distaff gymnastics gold, are blowing through those numbers from Beijing and Athens and delivering some of the best Summer Games’ Nielsens dating back to ABC’s coverage of the Montreal Olympics in 1976. (Can someone say decathlete great Bruce Jenner, pre-facelifts and Kardashian connections, Sugar Ray Leonard and Nadia Comaneci?)

NBCU’s expansive digital coverage — it’s streaming all the events lives with the belief that the gambit would drive people to the Peacock’s packaged and taped coverage in primetime — is also working quite well. (Note to Twitterians, London is five hours ahead of the east coast.)

Through its first seven nights of primetime coverage from London, NBC averaged 35.1 million viewers, 15% higher and 4.5 million more watchers than Beijing’s 30.6 million, and 30% and 8.1 million more than Athens’ 27 million. Those were the best marks for any non-U.S. Summer Olympics since the Montreal Games. London’s seven-night average household rating of 19.5/33 was also the most for any non-U.S. Summer Olympics through the first Thursday since the 1976 competition, and represented a 10% gain over the 17.7/30 standard for Beijing and 20% advance from the 16.2/28 from Athens.

The improved ratings enabled NBCU to get back into the Olympic ad market — no make-good worries — on Monday. That coupled with an uptick in the Games’ sales in the months leading up to the quadrennium — NBCU crossed the Pond with $1 billion on the books, $150 millon more than for Beijing — now has Comcast/NBCU officials talking about breaking even, after initial internal projections called for a $200 million London loss.

NBC Sports Group president Mark Lazarus even said on an August 2 media conference call that NBCU could edge into the black if the ratings’ rise continued. Lazarus — who in a March interview responded to this reporter’s query about London’s profitability prospects by saying “tell me what the ratings are” — noted Thursday that “we think there’s a small chance that we could make a little bit of money. We’ll know over the next couple weeks.”

But Lazarus expressed caution: “We are also realistic to know that we’re hitting some historic highs across every platform. We know every day won’t be an all-time high.

He pointed out that Phelps won his record eighth gold medal in Beijing on the second Saturday night of those Games. While that won’t be happening on Aug. 4, Phelps is taking his final pool plunge as an Olympian as a member of America’s 4 x 100 medley relay team that is favored to win gold.

A victory would extend Phelps’s record Olympic medal count mark to 22. In the last individual race of his storied career, Phelps was seventh at the turn, before exploding during the final 50 to earn a 100-meter fly three-peat. It was his second such achievement in London, as he also defended his 2004 and 2008 golds in the 200-meter individual medley.

For the record, these are the marks NBC is taking aim at on Saturday night : a 17.6 rating, 32 share and 31.1 million viewers  for Phelps’ final swim in Beijing. Those were NBC’s best results for a Saturday night since Golden Girls‘ spinoff Empty Nest in 1990.

The stakes are not nearly as high for Phelps on August 4, but Americans like to say goodbye to their TV heroes. (The 36.8 million who tuned in the Olympics on August 2 was the largest audience for any network on a Thursday night since theFriends’ finish in 2004.)

Here’s hoping Lazarus’ tout about the Phelps Phinale was all wet.