The Summer Olympic Games are a highlight of the NBC Sports canon. The network paid $894 million for the rights to air the Beijing Games this August, and with signature events including swimming and gymnastics to be televised live in primetime, the network is banking on a record tune-in.
But a series of unsavory news events have cast a pall over China's spotlight opportunity. Steven Spielberg resigned as artistic adviser thanks to the loud celebrity drumbeat over what many view as China's complicity in the genocide in Darfur. Earlier this month, Haile Gebrselassie, the Ethiopian marathon world record-holder, announced he would not run in his signature event, contending that China's vast air pollution problem would aggravate his asthma. And the bloody crackdown in Tibet is only the latest and most egregious headline to emerge.
Since NBC has no say in where the International Olympic Committee decides to stage the Games, network executives have little choice but to concentrate on the task at hand: the 3,600 hours of television programming, including 2,200 hours of live streaming content on NBCOlympics.com.
David Neal, the NBC executive VP overseeing the Beijing Games, talks to B&C's Marisa Guthrie about covering China's bad public relations, ad sales for the Olympics and what might be the Summer Games' answer to curling.
How does the negative coverage of China affect the Games?
The complexity that we've chosen to undertake in terms of our coverage—expanding it to additional platforms and tripling the hours we did in Athens—is a full plate for me. Like anyone else, you stay abreast of the news. Our philosophy of coverage has always been that if something transpires that affects the athletes or affects the competition, then certainly we will cover it fully. The Olympics is this enormous moving jigsaw puzzle where just when you think you've figured out where all the pieces go, somebody picks up the box and shakes it.
But doesn't this drumbeat of negative stories have a psychological effect?
It is the ultimate unscripted drama, and that comes with the territory. We're preparing exactly as we did one week ago, or one month ago or one year ago.
One snag with the Sydney Games in 2000 was the dearth of live events in primetime. How do you negotiate that?
[NBC Olympics Chairman] Dick Ebersol and [International Olympic Committee President] Jacques Rogge have a constant line of communication. And the IOC understands the value of live sport around the globe. There is live sport for us in the Americas. There is also plenty of live sport for Asia and Europe. I think they've managed to apportion it in a fairly equitable way.
How have advertising sales been?
It's been trending very well. It's on pace with where it's been in the past. Certainly the unusual year—between the writers' strike and the different platforms that have been emerging—makes it interesting. At this point now we're more than 70% sold.
How many people do you have to have in China to cover the Olympics?
Four years ago we took slightly more than 3,000 people to Athens. We are determined to take fewer to China, to take advantage of the evolution of technology and turn around a portion of our programming here at 30 Rock this summer. And a big part of that is trying to reduce the number of people we have to travel halfway around the world. I'm confident that it will take substantially less than 3,000 this summer.
Curling emerged as the cult sport of the Torino Winter Games in 2006. In your mind, what will be the Summer Games' cult event?
It certainly could be table tennis. We're going back to the place where ping pong diplomacy became famous in 1971. Maybe the fast-paced action of table tennis, in the country that is the mecca for table tennis, will be it. The Summer Games are vast. There are 35 different sporting arenas. You compare it to the Winter Games, where there's generally at most 11 different venues. Having fewer venues means there's more opportunity for one little niche sport like curling to jump out.
What could be as odd as curling?
When you consider it's the only sport where drinking is encouraged, maybe it's impossible to find another one like it.