More than a third of the population watched television coverage of the opening night of the Rugby World Cup.

Almost 1.7 million viewers tuned in to watch the All Blacks take on Tonga and TVNZ's live coverage claimed more than 1 million of those.

Paul Norris of the NZ Broadcasting School in Christchurch said the figures for the opening match were interesting - both for TVNZ and overall.

"Over a million is very rare. I think if you accumulate the figures for live games they're pretty high. That's a big figure for everybody watching one event, and that's not including people at the fan zones."


Nielsen has released the TV ratings, which measure an average audience aged 5 and over, for the All Blacks' pool matches.

These show Maori Television has collected its three highest ratings in its history.

Maori TV chief executive Jim Mather confirmed the New Zealand-Japan game was the highest rating programme it had broadcast - surpassing its previous record by more than 50 per cent. Its second highest was the Australia-Ireland game and the third the New Zealand-Canada match.

"In terms of the live games, we've significantly exceeded the estimates," Mr Mather said.

He put the surge down to a number of factors, including the more "relaxed and casual" commentary team.

For every All Blacks pool game, the majority of New Zealanders preferred the free-to-air broadcaster over Sky Sport 1.

When TV3 broadcast the France match live, it did not reach anywhere near the figures of TVNZ's All Blacks-Tonga coverage, but still claimed 595,900 - the highest of all networks for that game.

For the two games where Maori TV and Sky Sport 1 were the only live broadcasters, Maori TV edged ahead in the ratings.

Mr Norris said the ratings showed the competition between Sky Sport 1 and free-to-air live broadcasts.

But it wasn't all bad for Sky TV. Although it has not had the highest audience for any of the All Blacks' pool games, its ratings have stayed consistently high. Over the four games, they averaged 492,250.

The competition between the broadcasters will get more fierce because more channels will be screening the knockout matches.

Mr Mather said that would reveal how well Maori TV was performing.

"I think that is going to be answered emphatically this weekend when we're sharing the quarter-final with TVNZ and TV3. That will give us a very clear indication."

TVNZ general manager of sport Murray Needham said the state broadcaster was delighted all broadcasters had rated above expectations for the opening ceremony and game.

The most watched programme for last year - TVNZ's Cheers to 50 Years, full of highlights of the country's television history - attracted 760,170 viewers.

"It's all a different broadcast scenario now and thus the split of audience share will be different as well."

Because of a broadcast rights deal, TVNZ and TV3 have so far aired live only one All Blacks game each.

Under the deal, Maori TV will broadcast 16 games live and TVNZ and TV3 will show seven, six of them in the knockout stages.