NEW YORK: NBC has come in for scathing criticism on social media about its ad-laden coverage of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, but the US broadcast network has argued that viewing habits have changed.

Frustrated sports fans vented their anger last Friday night after NBC packed its coverage with commercial breaks – the first barely five minutes into the event.

And while much of the rest of the world watched the opening ceremony live, American viewers had to wait at least an hour because NBC wanted to broadcast at 8pm EST. That also meant viewers in the West had to wait even longer.

However, NBC defended its approach and told Adweek that the media landscape has changed significantly since the Olympic Games in London four years ago.

"As we did for London, we inserted a few more commercials earlier in the show so that we can afford time later in the show to present as much of the ceremony as we can, including every single country in the Parade of Nations," the company said.

"Given that the commercial load was very similar to London, we believe that consumption habits, such as binge-watching and 'marathoning' have changed perceptions among the viewing audience regarding commercials."

NBC has been covering the Olympics since 1964 and is reported to have secured a record $1.2bn in advertising for this year's event, but like many other broadcasters it has witnessed the growth of catch-up viewing and streaming.

The company argued that it wanted to show American viewers the full spectacle of the opening ceremony, including its cultural context, and for it to be shown in its entirety in prime time.

"Presenting it on delay allows us to show the American audience more of the opening ceremony than a live broadcast, which would have portions cut out by commercials," NBC said.

It comes as the Wall Street Journal reported that NBC's coverage pulled in 26.5m viewers on Friday night, the lowest figure since the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

Citing ratings from Nielsen, the Journal said that also represented a 28% drop from the 20.7m viewers who tuned into the 2012 games in London.

Data sourced from Adweek, Wall Street Journal; additional content from Warc staff