The first cybergames

Everything's changed since the last tape-delayed Olympics
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The Olympics get under way this week in Sydney. And, for the first time ever, they will be shown entirely on tape-delay because of the 15-hour time difference between Australia and the U.S. East Coast. Will the thrill of victory be lost in the agony of the tape?

After all, it is commonly believed in sports business circles that the innate spontaneity and unpredictability of sports is what makes it thrive on television. As one analyst put it, "It's the now-ness and never-again-ness of sports, the notion that attracts audiences to news coverage of brief wars and coups, but with referees and no killing."

Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports whose network (along with cable partners CNBC and MSNBC) will be televising 441 hours of Olympic competition over an 18-day period is projecting a 17.5-18.5 rating for NBC's prime time coverage and anticipates collecting $900 million in ad revenue. At first blush, the economics of the deal pencil out nicely since NBC paid $705 million for the broadcast rights and has allocated another $100 million to production.

But the last time the Olympics faced a tape delay in its summer broadcast was 1988, when the Seoul games delivered a 17.9 prime time rating-far short of the 21.2 NBC had promised advertisers. Because NBC delivered a lower rating, 3 million fewer viewers than projected, the network was forced to provide "make-goods" to advertisers.

Significantly, this ratings shortfall occurred prior to the proliferation of 24-hour cable sports networks and the rapid emergence of the Internet. Compounding the issues surrounding this immediacy and instant gratification now delivered around the clock, the attention span of sports viewers appears to be shrinking.

Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" may be willing to embrace day-old accounts of sporting events. But Generations X and Y are just as likely to channel-surf past such dated accounts in favor of live events. Additionally, hard-core and younger sports fans will be inclined to log on to the Internet should they need an Olympics fix.

Consequently, NBC will have to bridge this generation gap by quickly captivating and engaging younger sports fans without alienating the older audiences that tune into to the Games for the pageantry and entertainment experience.

To accomplish this, the network has created an official Web site, nbcolympics.com. While this site will neatly package and deliver scores, bios and analysis, it will not provide real-time audio or video highlights. Rather, those visiting the site will have to wait until the day after NBC presents its delayed broadcast.

For current highlights and extended event coverage, Web surfers will have to tune into the cable and broadcast coverage of the Games.

This strategy allows NBC to use its Website to whet the appetites of its online audience and encourage it to watch later in the day. For instance, by featuring such sports as mountain biking and beach volleyball online, NBC can gain the attention of younger audiences throughout the day and encourage them to tune in later.

Tom Feuer, the coordinating producer of NBC's Internet coverage, realizes the cross-promotional opportunities provided by the Internet and sees it as a high-tech carnival barker rather than a medium that threatens to cannibalize TV audiences. "Our No. 1 goal is to complement and enhance the broadcast," Feuer maintains.

Essentially, Feuer's goal is to entice younger and more impatient sports fans to tune in to watch the televised coverage provided over the air. However, Feuer can merely put NBC in position to retain these fickle viewers' interest; from there it will be up to those charged with packaging the coverage to keep them watching.

Personalities, both on the field and in the broadcast studio, that more readily "speak" to the viewing audience by blurring the lines between sports and entertainment will help NBC tell a more hip story and extend the network's reach to a coveted younger audience. By highlighting extreme sports, for example, NBC will go a long way to bridging the generation gap.

The ability to delicately blend sports and entertainment for demanding audiences with varied expectations and access to information is never easy. Doing so via tape-delay on a worldwide stage is even tougher. And, pulling it off during the first ever "Internet Olympics" will be a challenge.

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