The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro officially begin Friday night with the opening ceremony, and a whole lot of people will be watching on NBC. The relevant question here is, will it be more than watched in 2012?

The last summer Games brought huge audiences to NBC — the biggest for a Summer Olympics not staged in the United States since 1976, in fact. An average of 31.1 million people watched the network’s prime-time coverage four years ago.

Rio is only an hour ahead of Eastern Time, more of NBC’s prime-time coverage (though not Friday’s opening ceremony) over the next two weeks will air live to the eastern half of the country than it did in 2012. That could bode well for the network’s numbers.

The ever-expanding number of ways to watch, however — 10 other channels owned by NBCUniversal will also air Olympics coverage, and a record 4,500 hours of competition will live-stream — could spread the audience out more.

(NBC will unquestionably tout the number of people tuning into the Olympics as a “television event,” particularly if it surpasses the 219 million people who watched at least six minutes of coverage from London. But since the coverage keeps expanding and the U.S. population keeps increasing, that stat is largely a PR gimmick.)

Below is NBC’s prime-time average for the Summer Olympics since it won rights to the games in 1988.

Year Site Primetime viewers (millions)
1996 Atlanta 33.3
2012 London 31.1
2008 Beijing 27.7
1992 Barcelona 25.9
1988 Seoul 25.3
2004 Athens 24.6
2000 Sydney 21.5


Will Rio top Beijing and London, or do you think it will fall somewhere in the middle of the chart? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Posted by:Rick Porter

Rick Porter has been covering TV since the days when networks sent screeners on VHS, one of which was a teaser for the first season of "American Idol." He's left-handed, makes a very solid grilled cheese and has been editor of TV by the Numbers since October 2015. He lives in Austin.

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