Phelps a Summer Olympics Ratings Juggernaut

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Michael Phelps

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - The phenomenal exploits of swimming sensation Michael Phelps have helped propel US television ratings for the Olympics to an all-time high, figures indicated Wednesday.

According to data from Nielsen Media Research, US broadcaster NBC attracted an average 30.41 million viewers for the opening three days of the Beijing Games -- a whopping 26.7 percent more than the same period in 2004.

The spike in figures comes against a backdrop of falling viewership in recent years as television battles increased competition from cable television, the Internet, video games and home video.

NBC executives have attributed the increased viewership to live primetime coverage of sports such as swimming, gymnastics, and beach volleyball, and tremendous pre-Games buzz.

The company has also cited its strategy of showing the Olympics on multiple platforms -- television, Internet, mobile, video-on-demand, mobile -- as helping to drive viewers to primetime shows.

Olympics organizers shifted the swimming finals from their traditional evening slots to the morning in Beijing, which is 12 hours behind the US east coast, in order to maximize US television figures.

That decision appears to have paid off handsomely, particularly with Phelps emerging as the star of the Olympics so far, winning five gold medals and smashing several world records on successive days.

A US television industry source told AFP on condition on anonymity that Phelps' exploits were believed to be partially behind the success.

"I think Phelps has been really important, the drama and the results of the events he has been involved in have been extraordinary," the source said.

Another television industry source speculated that the grim state of the US economy may also have played a part in the ratings bonanza.

"We're living with four dollar gas, high food prices and families unable to afford summer vacations -- Amercans need something to cheer for and this Olympics and this US Team is filling that need," the source told AFP.

NBC's coverage of the Olympics Opening Ceremony -- shown delayed live -- was the week's most-watched program, the Nielsen figures showed, averaging 34.89 million viewers.

The total was the biggest ever for the Opening Ceremony of a Summer Olympics held outside the United States, and 37 percent more than the 25.38 million that tuned in for the Opening Ceremony of the 2004 Athens Games.

Prior to last week, the record had stood at 27.3 million for the Opening Ceremony from the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

The largest U.S. television audience for a Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony was 39.77 million for the 1996 Atlanta Games.

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