NEW YORK (Reuters) - NBC Universal's Olympics coverage is drawing huge audiences, helped by the extravagant opening ceremony and swimming star Michael Phelps, and setting the stage for what could be record TV ratings for the Games.
NBC Universal said the first two days of the Beijing Olympics drew an average audience of 29.1 million, making it the most highly rated broadcast of the Summer Games held outside the United States since 1976.
In total, 114 million viewers tuned in for at least part of its broadcast in the first two days, about 20 million more than the 2004 games in Athens, NBC said, citing figures from Nielsen Media Research.
NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric Co, paid nearly $900 million for rights to broadcast the games, and plans to air 3,600 hours of coverage between August 8 and August 24 across its broadcast, cable TV and online outlets.
"NBC has a lot at stake, both in terms of the event and a promotional platform for a new television season," David Scardino, the entertainment specialist with advertising agency RPA, said on Monday.
"I would think if I were NBC right now I'd be very pleased. It's still early, but judging off these ratings, they're in very good shape," he said.
Prior to the Olympics, NBC faced questions over whether its online coverage would detract from TV ratings and whether U.S. audiences were too consumed with other entertainment, such as iPods and video games, to concentrate on the telecast.
Right away, the network also drew criticism from some corners for its decision to tape the opening ceremony and delay the broadcast until prime-time evening hours -- which in the eastern United States meant the ceremony aired 12 hours after it occurred in Beijing.
"They have a lot of big commitments to huge advertisers. What else were they going to do?" said Bob Jeffrey, chief executive of advertising agency JWT, a unit of WPP Group Plc. "We're in a commercial business here."
In the end, the build-up paid dividends, securing a huge audience for advertisers who had paid top dollar for commercial time. NBC Universal has sold more than $1 billion in advertising for the Beijing Games.
Once it aired, the opening pulled in an average of 34.2 million viewers, up about 35 percent from the ceremonies in Athens.
While NBC Universal delayed broadcast of the opening ceremony, it has prevailed on the International Olympic Committee to start competitions earlier in the day in Beijing so it could air more events live during U.S. prime time.
Previously, U.S. audiences complained that Olympics in places like Sydney lost some of their drama because the outcomes became widely known before events had a chance to air, via tape delay, in prime time.
Swimming was among the events NBC Universal insisted be scheduled so it could air during prime time, partly because of the interest in U.S. swimming sensation Phelps.
NBC Universal credited his appearance on Saturday with helping lift that evening's average audience to 24.1 million viewers, beating the equivalent night in Athens by nearly 4.5 million viewers.
In addition to broadcasts on the flagship NBC network, coverage will air on Spanish-language network Telemundo, cable channels USA, MSNBC, CNBC and Oxygen, and various websites. Live audio-video streaming of the Games over the Internet will account for about 2,200 hours of the overall coverage.
A big audience for NBC should help it promote comedies and dramas coming out this fall, when the network aims to rebound from a last-place finish in the 2007-08 ratings race.
"I don't think there is a corporate halo that carries over: 'Because I liked the Olympics on NBC, I will watch NBC programming.' I don't think it works that way," said JWT's Jeffrey. "But when they run the promotions on the fall lineup, NBC will obviously have the competitive edge against the other networks."
Editing by Derek Caney and Braden Reddall