The London 2012 Olympics were available to viewers in the United Kingdom across multiple platforms, but television remained by far the most popular way of watching. The 2,500 hours of television coverage reached the majority of the population, some 51.9 million people out of a television universe of 57.4 million individuals. The Olympics predictably delivered the two largest television audiences for over a decade.
The opening ceremony produced an average television audience of just over 23 million viewers in the United Kingdom, with a peak audience of 27.3 million across all channels. The closing ceremony averaged at just below 23 million and peaked at 26.3 million. These were the highest audiences for the United Kingdom in over a decade and in the top ten of all time. The men’s 100 metre final was watched by 17 million live, with a consolidated audience of 20 million.
However, the England World Cup Victory in 1966 still remains the largest television audience, with an estimated 32.3 million viewers across both the BBC and ITV. The funeral of Diana Princess of Wales in 1997 had a combined audience estimated at 32.1 million, while her wedding in 1981 was watched by 28.4 million. A Christmas Day episode of the serial drama EastEnders attracted 30.1 million in 1986, including those watching the repeat broadcast.
The London 2012 games were comprehensively covered, with 24 channels of feeds provided by Olympic Broadcasting Services made available by the BBC to viewers on satellite and cable. An estimated 23.7 million individuals watched at least 15 consecutive minutes of at least one of the 24 additional television channels. A snapshot of BARB data shows audiences peaking at over 1.2 million for a single stream, during football coverage, while every stream received at least 100,000 viewers.
The majority of the audience still seemed to want to watch selected events on the main channels, but for those with an interest in a particular sport the uninterrupted coverage of events from various venues was outstanding.
In contrast, many viewers in the United States have been critical of the time-delayed coverage of the games as presented by NBC. That did not diminish the record audience figures.
NBCUniversal, now majority owned by Comcast, said that nearly 220 million Americans watched some of the Olympic coverage across its networks, laying claim to the most-watched event in United States television history. It averaged 31.1 million viewers in primetime, 12% higher than audiences for the Beijing Olympics and 26% higher than Athens.
The opening ceremony was watched by 40.7 million viewers in the United States, a record for a summer Olympics, even more than the 39.8 million that watched the opening of the Atlanta games in 1996. A record 31.0 million watched the closing ceremony.
For the first time, NBC Olympics.com streamed every competition live, as well as the closing ceremony. Cable, satellite, and telco customers verified 9.9 million devices either on NBCOlympics.com or through the NBC Olympics Live Extra app, which is claimed to be the most device verifications ever for a single event in TV Everywhere history. Nearly 160 million online video streams were delivered, totaling over 20 million hours. There were 64 million live online video streams, totaling 13. 6 million hours, averaging over 110 minutes per viewer on the web and over 90 minutes on the app. There were 1,467,000 live streams for the women’s soccer, 1,462,000 for the women’s gymnastics, both of which were only available to verified cable, satellite and telco television subscribers, and 1,288,000 for the men’s 100 meter finals.
NBC Olympics logged 57.1 million unique computer users, 10.1 million on its mobile web site, 11.2 million for its Live Extra app, and 3.7 million of for its Olympics app.
The BBC Sport online coverage reached 37 million unique browsers in the United Kingdom over two weeks, with a further 55 million globally. With an average of 7.1 million browsers in the United Kingdom and 9.5 million globally, the daily reach set a new record for the BBC.
The BBC reports that there were 106 million requests for online video of the Olympics, more than double that of any previous events. Of these, 62 million were for live streams, 8 million on demand streams and 35 million for clips. The tennis singles finals produced the largest audience, with 820,000 requests, which is a lot by any standards but still small compared to television viewing. There were 429,000 requests for the men’s 100 metres final. There have been nearly 4 million requests to view the opening ceremony online. The BBC says that every moment of the entire coverage will be available online until beyond the end of the year.
There were 12 million requests for video on mobile screens over the fortnight, from 9.2 million mobile browsers and 2.3 million tablets. There were 1.9 million downloads of the Olympics mobile app for iOS and Android smartphones.
That said, over a quarter of adults and almost half of teenagers in the United Kingdom now own a smartphone, according to the communications regulator Ofcom. So does this level of usage really represent a transformation in viewing?
“Our aspiration was that just as the Coronation did for TV in 1953, the Olympics would do for digital in 2012,” said Phil Fearnley of BBC Future Media. “The demand and astonishing feedback we’ve seen from audiences accessing our Olympics content online, whenever they want, on the devices they choose, has exceeded our expectations and helped fulfil this aspiration. We promised audiences would never miss a moment of the Games. We delivered on our promise and will build on this to leave a lasting digital legacy for audiences in years to come.”
Technologists have long promised that viewers want to watch whatever they want, whenever the want, wherever they want. In this respect, the audience was well served.
But at least as far as the Olympics are concerned it seems the mass audience still wants to congregate around the television to participate in a national event, almost irrespective of what they are actually watching. They still want to be able to look back and feel they were there as part of an occasion to remember.