NEW YORK - Viewer excitement about the Olympics is translating into gold for NBC: The broadcaster now expects to break even on the London Games rather than take a loss.
"We are way ahead of where we thought we'd be," NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke said Wednesday.
Covering the Olympics was more challenging for NBC this year because of the time difference with Europe. With London five hours ahead of New York, NBC isn't able to show any events live in prime time. In Beijing four years ago, NBC was able to show morning events such as Michael Phelps' gold-medal swims live during its evening broadcasts.
But instead of the expected 20 percent ratings plunge compared with Beijing, Burke said, NBC is seeing audiences up 9 percent so far, five days into the event.
"We think that is because of the way we promoted the Olympics during the hundred days leading up to the Olympics," Burke said.
Tuesday's Olympics telecast, featuring Phelps' record-setting swim and the gold-medal performance of the U.S. women's gymnastics team, had the highest rating of any night so far, according to Nielsen's overnight measurement of the nation's largest cities.
Combined with higher production costs in London, NBC had expected at one point to take a $200 million loss for the games. NBC paid $1.18 billion for the rights to show the games on TV and online in the U.S.
Before the games opened, NBC said it sold more than $1 billion in ads, breaking the record of $850 million set during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. It got 10 percent more for every minute of prime-time advertising compared with Beijing. It also tripled its pre-sales of online ads to $60 million, as it's streaming all events live for the first time.
The company's bet that live streaming wouldn't cut into prime-time television audiences appears to have paid off.
The bigger audience could also help NBC, which is fourth overall in U.S. ratings, promote new shows in its fall lineup and boost viewership of non-sports programs such as "Today" and "NBC Nightly News" during the Olympics.
The Olympics run through Aug. 12.
NBC is showing the Olympics on its main broadcast network, the Spanish-language Telemundo and the cable channels CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo and NBC Sports Network. It also created specialty channels devoted to basketball and soccer and one for 3-D. The main network is broadcasting more than 270 hours of the Olympics, the most ever.
NBC lost money on the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, but previous games were profitable, if not wildly so. It has broadcast every Summer Olympics since 1988. NBC expects to break even on broadcasting Olympic Games