Beijing Games setting NBC ratings records -- with asterisks of course

Like so many recent broken records before it, NBC's record viewership for the 2008 Olympics isn't exactly clear-cut. The network is on the verge of setting an all-time high for total number of viewers, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Whatever variables are included, the story is still impressive.

Akin to unique visitors to a Web site, NBC’s favorite number these days is a count of the number of people who have tuned in at some point to U.S. television coverage of the Beijing Games. Through Tuesday, that number stood at 203 million — four million more than the count at this point during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and six million shy of the record set that same year. The total count already has exceeded viewership in 2004 in Athens, by a margin of fewer than one million.

So NBC 2008 will likely be the unanimous champion for viewers in Olympics history, right? Kind of.

The US Census Bureau estimates there are 35 million more people living in the United States than in 1996. Due to that growth, there are an estimated 31 million more people not watching the Beijing games compared to the Atlanta version in 1996. Throw in the fact that many people are watching online, viewing video-on-demand and checking their cell phones and deciphering the number of "unique viewers" isn't an exact science.

All I know for sure is that NBC purchased the rights to the games for a reported $894 million and spent another $100 million on production. The network sold $1 billion worth of advertising and GE says it will rake in an additional $700 million for "Olympics-related services". Sounds like a winning formula.

If the network gets the surplus of viewers people are projecting, it'll simply be the icing on the cake. And the hard-working folks at Dunder Mifflin Paper Company should expect big things this fall with the increased exposure.

Photo via Getty Images

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