OVER THE 17 daysof the 2008 Olympics, 215 million Americans—better than 70% of thepopulation—tuned in to the Games on NBC. The official figure had been a mere214 million until about two months after the closing ceremonies when, out ofthe clear October sky, NBC got a note from Nielsen saying that they hadreexamined their findings and adjusted the total. "Around here," saysDick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports, "we call that the day we foundthe missing million."
This was but asweet lagniappe for the network, which had far surpassed its pre-Olympicsestimates (as well as its viewership guarantees to advertisers) in what woundup as the most watched sporting event ever. Six million more people tuned in tothis year's Games than saw the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta; viewership was up 12million over Athens in 2004. For the first summer since '02 broadcasttelevision, riding the Peacock's tail, saw its share of the prime-time audiencegrow against cable's.
A confluence ofevents drove the ratings: a sour economy, with bulging gas prices, that keptpeople at home, close to the tube; the heavy intrigue in China, stoked by theeerie magnificence of its 15,000 performers in the opening ceremonies; and, ofcourse, that kid from Baltimore swimming for gold night after night afternight. Eighty-two percent of the U.S., everywhere but the Mountain and thePacific time zones, could see Michael Phelps swim live.
"We stilllive in a star-driven world," says Ebersol, who pushed the IOC to getswimming and gymnastics live in prime time. "If Phelps isn't chasing MarkSpitz's record for gold medals, these Olympics would not have mesmerized thecountry the way they did."
Phelps was also abig lure to the network's website nbcolympics.com, which streamed live video ofevery event in 25 of the Games' 34 sports and offered marquee competitions(swimming, gymnastics, track) after they'd aired on TV. Here's where thenumbers get interesting. The site drew 52 million unique users, double what ithad in Athens. Of the 3,600 hours that NBC and its affiliates broadcast duringthe Olympics, 2,200 streamed on the Web, a number that grew exponentially asusers delved into replays and highlight packages.
The Web move wasgroundbreaking in its breadth and character. Streaming video, taken from theIOC's neutral feed, was often accompanied only by basic graphics (the score,the time) and audio consisting of an event's ambient sound—the whiffling of anarrow through the air, the wheezing of a bike uphill. On-demand Web viewinggave users unprecedented control over what they saw and when they saw it. Andyet tens of millions more people watched the Olympics on TV than watchedonline. Of the nearly $900 million that NBC reaped in ad revenue during theGames, less than $20 million came from the Internet.
So, the futuremay be visible, but it is not yet at hand. Fourteen months from now inVancouver, core sports like figure skating, short-track skating and Alpineskiing (on tape delay) will, as ever, be shown first on NBC, in prime time. TheWeb will again have live-stream coverage of the less popular sports and will bepositioned to slake almost any thirst for Olympic action. But the biggestOlympic moments in the most beloved sports will unfold on the same device whereHowdy Doody did: your TV.
The Brow Beat
The powerful PBS documentary Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami chronicled TheGreatest's life in the early 1960s when, even as an Olympic champion, he wasbarred from whites-only restaurants.
In Hard Knocks, an HBO miniseries out of the Dallas Cowboys' training camp,Pacman Jones poured water on his teammates, T.O. flaunted his abs, and JerryJones's freak show was on alluring display.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SI IMAGING: TIMOTHY CLARK/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (PHELPS), JENNIFER R. GRAD (FLAT-SCREEN TV); TOM NICK COCOTOS (TV)
PRECIOUS MEDALLER Phelps's run was the key to luring viewers, says Ebersol, who lobbied to get swimming live in prime time.
PARAMOUNT HOME ENTERTAINMENT/PBS HOME VIDEO (ALI)