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Phelps Helps NBC Make Olympics History

The air is smoggy, fireworks were faked, and a little Chinese girl became a 21st century Milli Vanilli. But initial ratings are great and NBC Universal’s ambitious high-definition coverage across multiple channels and the Web has been nearly as triumphant as Michael Phelps.

“The host (BOB) [Beijing Olympic Broadcasting] has been doing a great job,” a tired Dave Mazza, senior vice president of engineering for NBC Olympics said by e-mail. “Some of the HD specialty cams are just amazing.”

The biggest challenge, he said, is the overall complexity of more than 100 simultaneous HD feeds to the United States, along with the file-based workflow of the production.

“The file-based workflows that were developed for all our new media content required both resolution and location independence,” Mazza said. “We create clips from 50 kbps all the way up to HD and we can make them in China or 30 Rock.”

Phelps isn’t the only record breaker this summer. NBC Universal said Aug. 10 brought the highest ratings of any Sunday in Summer Olympics history if you count the NBCU team of television outlets: NBC Television, MSNBC, CNBC, USA Network and Telemundo. Some 81 million Americans saw Phelps and crew win the swimming medley relay that night.

Conveniently, the swimming events were in the morning in China, which is primetime in part of the United States, although debate continues whether tape-delayed sports lose a significant chunk of audience compared to live events.

According to Nielsen Media Research, about 107 million Americans watched at least part of Sunday’s coverage. Nearly half of all Americans (143 million) watched at least some of the games’ first 72 hours of coverage, starting Friday.

Meanwhile more than 1 million people watched the relay race online by Monday morning, NBCU said. saw its most traffic ever on opening night with 70 million page views, 10 times more than on the opening day of the Athens Games in 2004. The overnight rating for the Opening Ceremony was a 19 percent increase over Athens in 2004 and 16 percent higher than Sydney in 2000, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

All this despite the fact that NBC announcers are doing much of the work back in New York, seeing only television monitors of the action.

But at least for the moment, the performance of the athletes and the quality of the coverage is helping viewers overlook the technical illusions and the political controversies surrounding the games.

Big tests for Olympic ratings will come in the games’ second half, when swimming and gymnastics end and track and field events dominate.

“We are very happy with how well received the coverage seems to be,” Mazza said. “The amount of work that goes into an Olympic telecast is staggering, so the fact that people are watching and appreciating the coverage is very gratifying. We are well aware that a lot of the interest is tied to the performance of the U.S. team—which obviously has been great!”