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NBC Universal Off to Fast Start With Olympic Ratings

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 Summer 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.

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In total, 114 million viewers tuned in for at least part of its broadcast during 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 , paid nearly $900 million for rights to broadcast the games, and plans to air 3,600 hours of coverage between Aug. 8 and Aug. 24 across its broadcast, cable TV and online outlets.

NBC Universal is the parent company of CNBC.

But the network has faced questions over whether its online coverage will detract from TV ratings and whether the U.S. audience is too consumed with other types of entertainment, like iPods and video games, to concentrate on the telecast.

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.

The delay paid dividends, building up anticipation and securing a huge audience for advertisers who had paid top dollar for commercial time.

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NBC Universal has sold more than $1 billion in advertising for the Beijing Games.

Once it aired, the opening extravaganza pulled in an average of 34.2 million viewers, up about 35 percent from the opening ceremonies in Athens.

While NBC Universal delayed broadcast of the opening ceremony, it 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 Olympic Games in places like Sydney, Australia, lost much of their drama because the outcomes became widely known before events had a chance to air, via tape delay, in prime time.

Swimming is among the events NBC Universal insisted be scheduled so it can air during prime time, partly because of the interest in U.S. swimming sensation Michael Phelps.

NBC Universal credited his appearance on Saturday—when he won his first gold medal of the current competition—with helping lift that evening's average audience to 24.1 million viewers.

That beat the equivalent night in Athens by nearly 4.5 million viewers.

NBC is hoping that the appearance of Phelps in live prime-time swimming events on Monday and Tuesday will further bolster ratings.

In addition to prime-time broadcasts on the flagship NBC network, coverage of the Games 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 NBC Universal's overall coverage.