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Canadian broadcasters nearly break even on Olympics

The most watched event for the television consortium of Bell and Rogers was the men’s 100-metre final with 6.5 million Canadians tuning in.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Canada's Olympic broadcasters nabbed a bronze medal in advertising sales in London, after record-setting viewership propelled them – almost – across the break-even line.

The broadcasters that brought the Olympics into Canadian living rooms – BCE Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc. – nearly broke even in London as advertisers rushed to get the attention of the record-breaking number of viewers who were glued to their televisions throughout the Games.

Broadcasters were bracing for a loss, after losing an estimated $30-million in Vancouver in 2010. But sources said the partners sold about $100-million in advertising through the London Games, enough to cover most of their costs.

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The consortium sold some ad spots ahead of the opening ceremony, but left slots open throughout the Games in hopes of commanding higher prices once interest picked up. They weren't disappointed – the London Games were the most-watched Olympics in history.

Compelling story lines, easy Web access through mobile devices and a slick effort by the host city all contributed to the success, said Gord Hendren, president of Charlton Strategic Research Inc.

"The viewership numbers are nothing short of extraordinary, and well beyond what anyone could have expected or hoped for," said Mr. Hendren. "The advertisers certainly got their money's worth."

The consortium said 31.9 million Canadians watched at least some of the coverage, an increase of 88 per cent over the Beijing Games in 2008. There was 22 hours a day of coverage across the consortium's channels, drawing an average of 2.1 million viewers at a time.

The typical Canadian watched 21 hours of coverage over the 17 days.

The Canadian broadcasters made most of the coverage available on their websites, and Bell customers were able to download content to their phones and tablets. The consortium said viewers watched 3.4 million hours of content on the Internet, but didn't provide numbers on mobile usage.

Mr. Hendren said the flood of web content likely drove viewers to their televisions, giving the ratings a hefty boost.

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"The No. 1 reason for the success was the quality of the venues in London," he said. "Then multimedia kicked in and really helped with engaging viewers. And on top of all that you have some very compelling story lines – both Canadian and international – that kept things really interesting."

The numbers were similarly impressive for NBC, which owned the rights in the United States and came under heavy criticism for time-delaying the events so they could be shown in prime time.

The network drew 219.4 million viewers, making it the most watched television event in the country's history.

"The London Olympics exceeded all our expectations in viewership, digital consumption and revenue," NBCUniversal said in a statement.

The Games marked the end of the broadcasting partnership between the media organizations. Rogers decided earlier this year to walk away because it felt it would be too difficult to make money, leaving BCE and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. to bid on future games in Russia and Brazil.

After two failed bids in the $70-million range – about half of what the consortium paid for rights to Vancouver and London – BCE walked away as well.

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Just days after the London Games began, CBC made a surprise announcement that it had secured the rights. The amount was not made public, but the public broadcaster has broadly hinted that its bid was lower than previous offers made to the International Olympic Committee.

Executives said the broadcaster expects to at least break even, and said earlier this week they would be open to partnerships with rival broadcasters that would make the coverage widely available and help cover production costs.

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