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Say what you will about NBC’s decision to delay Michael Phelps’ first race until primetime: The numbers suggest NBC’s tape-delay strategy is paying off (or, at the very least, is not hurting the network’s overall Summer Olympics coverage popularity).

Saturday night averaged an enormous 28.7 million viewers — the most watched opening night on record for a summer edition of the Olympics. The audience was 20 percent bigger than the first night of competition in Beijing in 2008 and up 45 percent from Athens in 2004. Such gains are particularly impressive considering how fractured viewership is nowadays, with many fans choosing to watch the Games online.

NBC seemed to respond to the criticism of its tape-delay strategy, noting in a ratings release, “[Saturday’s primetime] rating is 14 percent higher than the first night of the Beijing Olympics, which featured live coverage of Phelps’ first of his eight gold medals.”

If only there was a Fringe-like alternate universe where NBC aired the contest live during the day AND re-aired it in primetime, which seems like a sensible way to go about this. Saturday’s 400-meter race is only four minutes long, after all. But we’ll never know if such a strategy would have given NBC a better/worse number last night.

Here’s how Summer Olympics Day 1 ratings stack up:

1. London – 2012 28.7 Million NBC

2. Atlanta – 1996 26.3 Million NBC

3. Beijing – 2008 24.0 Million NBC

4. Seoul – 1988 23.8 Million NBC

5. Barcelona – 1992 21.6 Million NBC

6. Sydney – 2000 21.0 Million NBC

7. Athens – 2004 19.8 Million NBC