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Opening night big TV draw for NBC

Aug. 09, 2008, 9:09 p.m. (ET)

NEW YORK (AP) The colorful Olympics opening night ceremony from Beijing on NBC averaged 34.2 million viewers, making it the biggest television event since the Super Bowl.

It was the biggest audience ever for an Olympic opening ceremony not held in the U.S., and even eclipsed this year's Academy Awards and finale of "American Idol," Nielsen Media Research said on Saturday.

The numbers were all the more impressive since it was a Friday night in August, when many people have better things to do than watch TV. If they do choose to watch TV, the number of options are growing year by year, meaning most television events typically go down in ratings.

The most recent summer Olympics, in Athens four years ago, averaged 25.4 million viewers for its first night, Nielsen said. Sydney in 2000 had 27.3 million viewers.

"It was a magical and memorable spectacle and a great way to start the Beijing Olympics," said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports and Olympics.

It was good news for NBC and its advertisers, particularly since there was concern Friday about computer users finding ways to access non-NBC video feeds and watch portions of the ceremony before it appeared on the network. Due to the time difference, NBC aired the ceremony in the eastern U.S. 12 hours after it happened in China.

Instead, the tape delay may have helped NBC, allowing word of mouth to spread about the spell-binding ceremony, which featured an estimated 15,000 cast and crew members, many performing intricate dance moves with images that used Beijing's new stadium as a backdrop.

NBC's Olympics Web site didn't air video of the event before it was shown on TV, but it and many other Web sites did post still pictures. NBCOlympics.com registered 70 million page views on Friday, its heaviest traffic ever.

NBC Universal said it was working with Olympics officials to make sure video of events for which NBC has exclusive U.S. rights are not shown on other Web sites, network spokeswoman Kathy Kelly-Brown said.

Olympic authorities provide rights-holders with technology that prevents its coverage of Olympic events from being seen outside of their country. However, there were reports that the blocking technology didn't work for Germany's ARD network, allowing video to slip out beyond that country's borders.

After opening night, NBC is less concerned about video getting out, at least for the first week of the games. NBC's prime-time for the next week is concentrating on live events like gymnastics and Michael Phelps' bid for swimming immortality. Many other events are shown live on NBC Universal's cable networks or on NBC's Web site.

However, the second week of the games may present NBC with more of a problem. It currently plans to air most track and field events on tape-delay in prime-time, allowing for the possibility that pictures will slip out early.