By Duncan Mackay in Vancouver

February 23 - Half the world's population is expected to tune into the Winter Olympics with coverage worldwide due to exceed 50,000 hours amid the explosion of digital media, it was claimed here today.

These Games have already set new records, with Canada's shock Olympic ice hockey loss to the United States on Sunday the most viewed sports programme in Canadian television history.

An average audience of 10.6 million viewers watched the match. 

Peaking at 13 million viewers, the game was watched in part by nearly two in three Canadians, or 21.5 million viewers - 64.3 per cent of the Canadian population.

Across the border in the US, 8.22 million viewers saw the game live on cable network MSNBC,  the second highest in the history of that channel, only marginally behind its ratings on election night in 2008, when 8.23 million watched Barack Obama become the first black President of the country.

And last week American Idol, the runaway television success fronted by Simon Cowell that has enjoyed a US ratings stranglehold for almost six years, was knocked off top spot by the Olympics, with 30 million Americans watching the Games and 18 million the reality find a popstar show.

"I feel that we're well on track to providing the most extensive broadcast coverage of any Winter Olympic Games in history," said International Olympic Committee (IOC) director of television and marketing Timo Lumme.

"We have over 300 broadcasters or television stations showing coverage, over 100 websites worldwide in over 200 territories.

"If we look at that we have - from the broadcast-only side - around 24,000 hours of coverage.

"That's around 47 percent more than Turin.

"The total amount of coverage we expect, adding up all the coverage throughout the world, should exceed around 50,000 hours by the end of the Games.

"We would expect around 3.5 billion people, over half the population of the world, will have watched some coverage of the Games."

Keith Pelley, the President of Canada's Olympic broadcast media consortium, said the coverage was unprecedented.

"Television, radio, print, digital - every single second of the Games is being streamed online," he said.

"The other day we had 14 streams going at one time.

"97.8 percent of Canadians have experienced these Games on one of our multiple platforms, which is astonishing, and the ratings continue to soar beyond our expectation."

In the US, NBC is currently averaging an audience roughly three times the size of its nearest rival, Fox, thanks to the Olympics.

NBC's coverage of the Winter Games held seven of the top eight spots for the week, the Nielsen Co. said today.

"TV is still king," said Alan Wurtzel, President of research at NBC Universal, said following the release of the figures.

"Multiplatform consumption is emerging and going to become extraordinarily important.

"But the mothership is - and will remain for a very long time - television."

Ratings among young adults have been particularly healthy, he said, with viewership up 57 per cent among those 18-24 years old from Turin.

But the figures are also below those of Salt Lake City in 2002, the last occasion the Games were held in North America.

"You can't compare it to Salt Lake," said Wurtzel.

"Salt Lake was a domestic Olympics that took place seven months after 9/11 in a media environment that is so old now that it is sort of like the paleo-historic era."

Among other findings in the research conducted by NBC was that about 66 per cent of people said they stayed up later than normal to watch the Olympics, and 40 per cent of them were more tired than usual; 35 percent of those who watched the Games cried during the broadcast; and snowboard champion Shaun White (pictured) was the athlete people who would most like to have over for a family meal.

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