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London Olympics: NBC coverage most-watched TV event in U.S. history

August 13, 2012|By Scott Collins
  • The Spice Girls -- from left, Victoria Beckham, Geri Halliwell, Emma Bunton, Melanie Chisholm and Melanie Brown -- perform during the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
The Spice Girls -- from left, Victoria Beckham, Geri Halliwell, Emma Bunton,… (Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images )

Critics might have complained about the TV coverage of the London Olympics, but NBC has already draped itself with a gold medal - for ratings.

The network on Monday said that the 2012 Games were the most-watched U.S. TV event in history, with a total of 219.4 million viewing at least part of the coverage, according to data from Nielsen.

That is up 2% from the No. 2-ranked Beijing Games four years ago and dwarfs the records for single broadcasts of major events. The Super Bowl, for example, has in recent years set ratings records with about 100 million total viewers. 

Of course, the Olympics unfolded over 17 days and across multiple networks in the NBC family, a record-breaking 5,535 hours in all, so the company had plenty of time and channel space to rack up that Everest-sized total.

All of the top 10 "most-watched events" on Nielsen's list consist of Olympics, and all were telecast on NBC except for the Lillehammer Games in 1994, which ran on CBS. For the purposes of the statistics books, Nielsen counts someone as a "viewer" if that person watched as little as six minutes of a telecast.

Even so, the numbers were impressive. Sunday's closing ceremony with the Spice Girls, George Michael, Queen and other British pop acts gathered 31 million total viewers, the highest tally for a non-U.S. Olympics since the Montreal Games back in 1976.

That closely tracked with overall viewing of the Games on nights when athletics were the focus. The NBC broadcast prime-time packages - assailed by many fans for airing hours after the events took place - averaged 31.1 million viewers, far higher than the 27.7 million who turned up for Beijing.

The London Games were also a huge hit online - and in ways that reveal how the digital market is rapidly changing. A total of 57.1 million unique users viewed content online, up 10% compared with Beijing. But there were 10.1 million unique users on mobile devices, skyrocketing 55% compared with four years ago.

NBC executives were exultant.

"For 17 days, NBCUniversal has surrounded the American viewer with the London Olympics, which have now become the most-watched event in U.S. television history," NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus wrote in a statement. "There are thousands of dedicated and talented people in London and New York who take great pride in being part of these historic games and this television milestone."

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Follow Scott Collins on Twitter @scottcollinsLAT.

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