More Than a Sporting Chance


Who says ancient, old-school broadcast television can't draw big audiences anymore?

Thus far, NBC's Summer Olympics coverage from Beijing has pulled significant audiences in the first week of its two-week coverage blitz.

Led by the gold-medal story line of amazing swimmer Michael Phelps and the gutsy athleticism of the U.S. women's gymnastics team, NBC is averaging 31 million viewers through five days of telecast coverage (Aug 8. to 12), almost 5 million more than Athens in 2004 (25.8 million).

In addition, NBC's national rating average of 17.8/31 share is the best primetime rating through the first five days of a non-U.S. Summer Olympics since Barcelona in 1992 (18.2/34) and is a 16% jump from Athens in 2004 (15.4/27).

NBC's primetime performance is particularly impressive considering that consumers have also generated 17.7 million online video streams of often-live coverage from the games, and that millions of 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.