NBC's coverage of the Olympics got a so-called "bonus" day of events this year. For the first time, the Winter Games kicked off on a Thursday, the day before the official opening ceremonies, and in the process scored a big ratings win for NBC (a subsidiary of Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA), even if the actual opening night took a small dip.
Thursday's launch coverage of the 22nd Winter Olympics was the result of 12 new events being added to this year's games. Freestyle skiing, figure skating and the debut of slopestyle snowboarding kicked off the telecast, which all together will feature 98 events across 15 disciplines.
In total an average of 19.5 million viewers tuned into the coverage, and among metered-market households pulled an 11.8 rating (and an 18 share), NBC's best performance in those measures since the opening of the NFL football season last September when the Denver Broncos topped the Baltimore Ravens (14.9/25). In the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demo, the Olympics earned a 5.6, which gave NBC a win over perennial Thursday winner The Big Bang Theory, which saw a 5.0 rating and 17 million viewers.
While some will want to compare this first night of coverage to past editions, it's not a fair metric because 2010's Winter Games in Vancouver were aired under different circumstances. Namely the first day of games was on a Saturday, which traditionally is a weak ratings night compared to the hotly contested Thursday night battleground. By comparison, those games pulled in a 7.9 in the 18-49 demo, a 23% difference. Still, NBC did win the night across the board and as we are in February sweeps, that's a big victory.
These numbers also are a testament to the power of CBS' (NYSE:CBS) The Big Bang Theory, which typically averages such large numbers on a weekly basis. In other words ... nerds rule.
As for the main event, this year's Opening Ceremonies, the numbers didn't hit a new overall record, but all things considered it was still a strong performance. NBC's coverage was watched by 31.7 million viewers, with an 8.6 in the demo. The games also aired versus mostly reruns and basically had the night to itself.
Compared to 2010's Vancouver Olympics it was actually slightly down as those games garnered a 9.4 rating in the demo and 32.6 million viewers. But you have to take into account that Vancouver's Opening Ceremonies were also live as they were on the Pacific Time Zone, whereas last night's opener was aired following a lengthy tape delay from Russia. In terms of non-live Opening Ceremonies though, Sochi's now ranks second only to Lillehammer's infamous 1994 games, which were heightened by Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding scandal and had 33.8 million viewers.
The top champ overall though (for both summer and winter coverage) remains 2002's Salt Lake City games, which had 45.6 million viewers. 2012's London games is second with 40.7 million.
It's hard to compare to those 2002 Games as that was before the rise of streaming media, which will eat into standard overnight ratings for the foreseeable future.
So what does this mean overall for NBC? Simply put it means the Olympics remain a solid investment for the channel (and their subsidiaries). The Olympics have been airing on NBC for a very long time and the Sochi Games are the first of the four Olympics under the network's latest rights package, which runs through 2020.
In addition, the network will have the Sochi Games running through Feb. 23, which gives it a huge platform to promote its midseason slate, including the launch of comedies About a Boy and Growing Up Fischer, in addition to Jimmy Fallon's first night as the new host of The Tonight Show.
Brett Gold owns shares of CBS. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.