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Beijing Olympics most watched event in television history

Nielsen Media Research confirmed what many had expected: NBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games in Beijing was the most-watched event in television history. More than 211 million viewers watched the Games on the network’s broadcast network and cable channels.

The event exceeded the 1996 Atlanta Games by 2 million — the previous all-time record-holder. NBC Universal always had a strong chance of setting a new most-viewed benchmark this round due to its production of a massive 3600 hours of coverage across a multitude of platforms.

However, the extent to which the Internet served as a supplement to television was unprecedented, and there were two clear winners: NBC’s own Web site and Yahoo’s Olympics section. served up more than 1.2 billion pages and 72 million video streams, more than doubling the combined traffic to its site during the 2004 Games in Athens and the 2006 Games in Turin. The popularity of the site will very likely make digital rights more significant in next year’s bidding for the 2014 and 2016 Games.

The NBC broadcast network also performed well on its own (averaging 27.7 million viewers per night), defying industry expectations by trending 11 percent higher than its coverage of the Athens Games four years ago.

This Olympics served as a research laboratory, offering for the first time a good idea of how viewers consume and mix content from its combination of television, online and mobile offerings.

However, critics have charged that because NBC did not stream the most popular sporting events live, its findings are skewed. NBC saved some popular sports for prime time television — up to 12 hours after they actually happened. This tactic put the network at odds with the spirit of the Internet, which rewards speed and rejects scarcity.