NBC's Winter Olympics coverage got off to a gold-medal start, with all-time record ratings for the opening ceremonies and hefty gains over the 1998 Winter Games on CBS for the first weekend of events, figures showed Monday.

The robust U.S. viewership was clearly helped in part from the heightened sense of patriotism in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, themes very much on display during the opening pageantry of the Salt Lake City Games on Friday night.

The results were a welcome reversal of fortune for NBC some 16 months after the network's tape-delayed coverage of the Summer Games from Sydney, Australia, limped across the finish line at a 32-year low in Olympics TV ratings.

Friday night's telecast from Utah's capital drew a household rating of 25.5, the biggest percentage of U.S. homes that has ever tuned an Olympic opening ceremony, summer or winter, according to Nielsen Media Research Inc.

Each rating point represents 1,055,000 homes, or 1 percent of U.S. households with TV sets.

The previous record for an Olympics opening ceremony dates back to the three-network world of 1960, when the Winter Olympics made their television debut in Squaw Valley, Calif., with a household rating of 24.2. The Los Angeles Summer Games of 1984 previously ranked as No. 2.

In terms of actual viewers, 72 million people tuned into Friday's opening extravaganza at some point during the telecast, surpassing the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway, as the most watched in Winter Olympics history. The average audience for any given minute of the broadcast, considered a more accurate gauge of viewership, was a more modest 46 million people.

INCREASED LIVE COVERAGE

Ratings on Saturday and Sunday were less stratospheric but still marked strong increases over the first two days of competition during the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, which aired on CBS.

Saturday night's prime-time NBC telecast, which included women's mogul skiing and the short program of pairs figure skating, averaged about 30 million viewers, about 10 million more than CBS' first day of events from Nagano. On Sunday night, which featured men's downhill skiing and the U.S. team's first gold-medal -- in women's snowboarding -- NBC drew 30.2 million viewers, down about 2 million from Nagano's third day.

But for Friday-through-Sunday combined, NBC averaged a household rating of 20.3, up 23 percent from the CBS' three-day average in Nagano.

As predicted, NBC benefited from increased live coverage from Utah compared with both the Summer Games from Sydney in October 2000 and the Nagano Winter Games in 1998, when the huge time difference between the Olympic venues and the United States forced tape delay coverage of all events.

Executives at NBC, which reportedly has spent $545 million for its U.S. broadcast rights to the quadrennial sports spectacular, have predicted this year's Winter Olympics could be as much as 25 percent more profitable than the Summer Games from Sydney.

The network said before the Games began that it had surpassed its target of $720 million in advertising sales for the 375 hours of Olympic programming planned for NBC and sister cable networks MSNBC and CNBC.

NBC is a unit of General Electric Corp. CBS is a unit of Viacom Inc.