Viewers also reveled in a now-established behavior: They flipped among NBC channels, and they watched on multiple screens or platforms at once, TV-plus-laptop, or maybe TV/laptop-plus-mobile-phone, tweeting and/or posting on Facebook while watching or during commercials. Comcast's Xfinity customers, for example, verified an average of 2.4 devices for streaming Olympics content.
"Multiple-screen watching has exploded," said Rainie, "and it vastly expanded the audience for these Olympics."
(Credit U.S. athletes, too, for winning 104 medals and leading the world.)
Jessica Reif Cohen, a Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst, has a buy rating on Comcast stock and owns some. She likes Project Symphony, Comcast's assiduous effort to cross-link and cross-promote all content everywhere: "The idea is that you cross-promote and connect TV and cable and movies and Web and all the other properties." NBC's success reminds her of another entertainment cross-promoter, perhaps the best of them: Disney.
Matt Strauss, senior vice president for digital and emerging platforms for Comcast Cable, said the cross-linking effort "demonstrated the power of the audience, with a tremendous amount of video, and then funneling and focusing that interest. We can drive awareness."
Profits? Lazarus put gross revenue at $1.25 billion. That beats the $850 million raked in during Beijing and bests internal projections by 15 percent to 20 percent. He said high ratings helped NBC sell ads later in the games at a higher rate.
Cash is only part of it: Eyeballs are another. NBC got viewers to watch NBC. And it tried an aggressive programming experiment, curtailing Olympic coverage on two nights at 11 p.m. to show pilots for two fall sitcoms without commercial interruptions.
The gamble paid off, with Matthew Perry's comedy Go On attracting 16.1 million viewers and Justin Kirk's Animal Practice drawing 12.8 million. (The latter ticked off some broadcast viewers because it bumped the Who's performance in the closing ceremony to late night. It was live online.)
Not new as a concept, said Lazarus: "Every network has used sports to promote other content. That has become part of the ecosystem of the TV business." Parenthood launched well out of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics on NBC and has been renewed for a fourth season. In February, the second season of The Voice got a jump-start out of the Super Bowl.
Lazarus hopes the Games brought new viewers to Today and NBC Nightly News, whose anchors and reporters appeared frequently in Olympics coverage.
Was all the self-promotion too much? As in, "Now it's time to interrupt our promos for NBC's new comedies to bring you the men's 4x400 finals"?
"We actually didn't think the NBC program promotions within the Olympic telecasts [were] heavy-handed," said Andy Donchin, director of media investments and national broadcast for Carat, a major advertising firm. "There was not a noticeable increased commercial load versus past telecasts," he said by e-mail.
Can the Peacock ride the wave? Donchin said the time lag before the shows re-air in September works against them. In the end, he said, "it all depends on the shows. If they are good, they will probably find an audience."
Len Fogge, NBC's president of marketing, said by e-mail that "a platform like the Olympics can give you a major lift in awareness and sampling, and London did a great job of that for us."
Can this boost NBC, once proud, now bedraggled? It finished third among the networks last season, behind Fox and CBS. It beat ABC by a hairbreadth, thanks almost entirely to football -- the Super Bowl and Sunday Night Football (which dethroned American Idol this year as the most watched program on TV).
Stock analyst Cohen says she thinks Olympic success will help NBC in 2014 and 2015, when retransmission contracts -- the fees that networks get from cable, satellite, and telephone companies to transmit their signals -- are renegotiated. Above all, NBC gets four more Olympic bumps: "The Olympics are like the Super Bowl, except it's the Super Bowl for a two-week period. And it's [NBC's] through 2020."
"I think we'll look back at these Olympics as a turning point in how people look at platforms, customer demands, and how and where they want content," said Strauss. "You can't argue with 219 million viewers."
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