It would take superhuman feats to save a TV season best known for bringing us Greatest American Dog and The Baby Borrowers — and, well, that’s exactly what did it. Thanks to spectacular showings from the likes of eight-time gold-medalist swimmer Michael Phelps and surprise-star sprinter Usain Bolt, the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics didn’t just become summer’s only breakout TV hit; it became the most-watched event ever, with a total audience of 214 million over 17 days. NBC execs credit standout athletes, the prime timing of major events’ live finals, and online synergy — NBC’s Olympics portal posted a record 75.5 million video streams. But our collective mood might’ve also helped those numbers. ”Viewers wanted a diversion from gas prices and the economy,” says Mitch Metcalf, exec VP of scheduling at NBC. ”They just wanted to get away, and this was a nice vacation.”
Once audiences tuned out their problems and tuned in, they were dazzled by awe-inspiring opening and closing ceremonies, one of the biggest Olympics stories ever in Phelps’ stunning run, and a women’s gymnastics competition made more tense by a new scoring system. Then there’s Jamaica’s Bolt, whose flamboyant victory antics made him a subject of debate — showmanlike or unsportsmanlike? — and have so far scored him an endorsement offer from British cable giant Virgin Media (for its high-speed broadband — get it?). ”Put all that together, and we were able to do what seems impossible in network TV these days,” Metcalf says, ”which was increase performance from past years.” So, how long before Bolt’s guest-starring on Heroes?