It’s another day of record ratings for NBC

NEW YORK – Look online, and it seems everyone has a complaint about NBC’s Olympics coverage. Look at the ratings – the report card that really matters to NBC – and the London games are a smash hit.

The Nielsen company said 36 million people watched Sunday night’s coverage, a bigger audience for the second night of a non-U.S. summer Olympics competition since TV began covering them in 1960. Counting the opening ceremonies on Friday, an average of 35.8 million people have tuned in for the three nights, well above the 30.6 million who watched the first three nights in Beijing in 2008 and considerably more than the 24 million who saw the first three nights of the Athens games of 2004.

This is the opposite of most TV programs, where declining ratings are the rule rather than the exception. But it reflects how broadcast television has become a destination for big events and how social media is driving viewership.

“The ratings are surprising to me,” said Andrew Billings, a sports media professor at the University of Alabama and author of Olympic Media: Inside the Biggest Show on Television. “I thought social media would be more of a detriment than an attribute. I thought more people would not tune in because they knew the results.”

Billings said he’s tried to avoid learning the results of events before he watches NBC’s tape-delayed prime-time telecast. But it’s hard: He didn’t want to hear about Ryan Lochte’s gold medal victory over Michael Phelps on Saturday, but when his mobile phone beeped that afternoon, he looked and saw a CNN news alert telling him what happened.

NBC knew more people would know the results before prime time in an increasingly wired world, if only because the company is streaming all competition live online as it happens. It hasn’t seemed to matter much to viewers, however. The network isn’t publicly saying, but the London ratings have exceeded their expectations.

That has financial implications for NBC Universal and its parent Comcast Corp. NBC has said it will lose money telecasting these Olympics, largely because the expense of working in London, but the strong ratings will enable the network to sell more of its remaining advertising slots for the rest of the games, and at higher prices than expected.

Twitter has been flooded with gripes about NBC keeping most day’s marquee events off the air until they can be shown in prime-time, the broadcast that brings in the most viewers and advertising revenue for the network. But many of the gripers are apparently watching, anyway and, for many people, knowing the results whets their appetite for wanting to see how the competition played out.

Many of the Twitter complaints are posted with the hash tag #nbcfails. Another entertaining destination of Twitter – #NBCDelayed – displays joking tweets of NBC delaying other events: “Breaking: Orville and Wilbur Wright’s machine flies” and “Tune in tomorrow for the Olympic opening ceremonies in Beijing.”

Yet NBC’s audience size is outpacing the Beijing games, even though the network had live coverage of two of Phelps’ gold medal races on the first two nights of competition four years ago.

With fewer comedies and dramas grabbing large audiences, Americans are turning more toward big events as communal gathering places. The last three Super Bowls are the top three most-watched shows in television history. Both the Grammy and Academy awards shows reached nearly 40 million people this year. Many people watch these events and converse digitally with their friends.

Even Sunday afternoon, NBC had 16 million viewers for its Olympics coverage, a number that exceeds virtually all other prime-time shows this summer.

“There are so few water cooler programs left that when we see one, we hold on to it,” Billings said. “Even when we complain about it.”