Beijing put on an Opening Ceremony for the ages on 08-08-08, showcasing not only China's 5,000 years of recorded history, but also the fact that the country is not living in the past. And if it wasn't a rating for the ages, it at least was the best ever, in terms of total viewers, for an Opening Ceremony not on U.S. soil. Awed audiences came back for the competition on Saturday and Sunday nights as well, giving NBC a strong start. For NBC -- not to mention the Olympic movement -- this is important, since the games' ratings, just like athletic competitions themselves, are often a game of momentum. Bad buzz can dampen enthusiasm (Athens in 2004, Torino in 2006), while good vibes and great storylines (Lillehammer in 1994, Salt Lake City in 2002) can create the opposite effect.
Online buzz builds audience
Public perception is also subject to the internet effect, which can work against NBC, as results are often known far ahead of time. But this time gap also allowed for Friday afternoon web surfers (at least those still in the office) to be presented with press reports about how spectacular the opening ceremonies were.
And the artistic quality was matched by viewing quantity, as the opening ceremony delivered a 10.3/32 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic, which is about a 29% increase over the Athenian version, according to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data.
Final numbers for all Saturday and Sunday aren't available until Tuesday, but based on the Nielsen fast-affiliate ratings (which only track until 11 p.m. ET, before the end of NBC's telecast each night), Saturday night posted a 7.3/25, which was still up 6%, but predictably not as significant a jump.
But Sunday's showing suggests maybe viewers were just catching their breath (or were lured by prime-time NFL exhibition games in several local markets), as the 11.0/30 represents 12% more in the demo watching than four years ago.
Overall, Saturday's and Sunday's ratings indicate the opening ceremony delivery wasn't just a case of cursory curiosity, but rather a potentially more sustainable surge in interest.
Of course, just like in an Olympic event itself, winners are partly defined by competition. And here network rivals wouldn't have qualified as Olympic-caliber, especially considering that ABC, Fox and the CW all aired reruns. CBS did run two originals, "60 Minutes" (1.3/4) and "Big Brother" (1.5/4), but followed with two repeats as well ("Million Dollar Password," 1.64, and "Cold Case," 1.0/2). Overall, CBS delivered a 1.3/4, good enough for a stunted second place, above ABC's 1.1/3, Fox's 1.0/3 and the CW's .3/1.
ABC ran a schedule mostly consisting of reality repeats, with "America's Funniest Home Videos" (1.2/4) and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" (two episodes posting a 1.0/3 and 1.4/4) leading into "Desperate Housewives" (.8/2).
Fox countered with comedy (" 'Til Death," .6/2 and .7/2; "The Simpsons," 1.4/4, and "Family Guy," 1.8/5) and drama ("Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," .9/2). All of these shows have a mostly male TV tonality, but Fox was seemingly unable to peel away many guys watching the mano a mano between the U.S. and French swim relay race.
The CW also ran comic repeats ("Everybody Hates Chris," .3.1; "Aliens in America," .2/1, and a .4/1 for both "The Game" and "Girlfriends"), as well as a drama where basketball is often a central character, "One Tree Hill" (.2/1), but -- like nearly every Olympic counterprogram in the next two weeks – it was no match for the live sports drama on NBC.
WHAT TO WATCH:
After a summer schedule replete with repeats and reality, there really is only one game in town. Or, make it many games, many athletes and many options, but the Olympics are and will continue to be NBC's quadrennial version of "Must-See" TV.
Monday: Two of the most popular Olympic sports -- swimming and gymnastics -- continue, as does Michael Phelps' quest for eight gold medals.
Tuesday: It's the type of athletic event most will only watch every four years, but the unique sport of synchronized diving is compelling competition.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Olympic storylines, which in a short time create for viewers a narrative tying together the threads of so many sports and so many athletes. NBC -- and the U.S. Swimming Team -- couldn't have scripted it better than Sunday night's riveting relay race, which kept the Michael Phelps storyline alive.
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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)
John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.