Olympian Effort

NBC's 416 hours of coverage—virtually all in hd—tests its mettle

For two weeks every four years, the Winter Olympics mesmerize millions of viewers. The nation goes crazy watching figure skaters, snowboarders, even curlers compete for the gold.

NBC Universal kicks off its Winter Olympics coverage on Feb. 10, from Torino, Italy (known as Turin in this country) and plans a stunning record 416 hours of coverage, on NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, Telemundo and USA. Events will also be available on nbcolympics.com and as video-on-demand. For the first time, viewers will be able to see much of the Games in high-definition. But just as awesome as those pictures is the story of how nearly 3,000 NBC staffers are pulling off this massive technological, logistical and programming feat.

The single most astonishing statistic regarding NBC Universal's coverage of the Winter Olympics from Torino, Italy, is the sheer size of the endeavor. More hours of Olympics coverage are planned than there are hours in a day: The 416 total hours that will be televised across various NBC platforms from the opening Feb. 10 to the closing Feb. 26 average out to 24.5 hours a day.

“We are reinventing the clock,” quips NBC Sports executive producer and Olympics Executive VP, David Neal.

If it works the way NBC hopes, the 2006 Winter Olympics should be some great news in a so-so season for the network. It shelled out $1.5 billion for rights to these Games and the 2008 Summer Games from Beijing. Happily for NBC, the U.S. team promises strong performances in several arenas, which ought to drag in viewers. And give or take a million, NBC has more than $800 million in advertising commitments.

NBC is determined to create viewer-friendly experiences with what Neal calls its on-air and online “road maps” to what's on now and what's coming up. That's necessary because there will be so much Olympics coverage. NBC Universal is using MSNBC, CNBC, USA Network, Telemundo, Universal HD and NBC HD, plus nbcolympics.com to show the games. NBC is also debuting Olympic video-on-demand (VOD). The VOD package will feature daily highlight videos and one-hour figure-skating programs. In 2002, some 170 million viewers saw at least part of the Salt Lake Winter Games.

And it will dominate the national scene, especially in troubling times. “The nations of the world are all gathered for two weeks of friendly competition, and that in effect is comfort food to viewers,” Neal says. “It's reassuring TV.”

For a brief time at least, the Olympics hooks viewers. In fact, although nbcolympics.com will show in real time results of contests that viewers may not see until hours later, Gary Zenkel, president of the NBC Olympics division, says flatly, “I don't think that's a liability.” Remarkably, rival espn.com will add a link to NBC's Olympics site.

The most important piece of NBC's Olympics game plan in terms of innovation, says coordinating producer Molly Solomon, is how much will be in HD (see story, p. 7). But, while the Games become a major showcase for the technology, the Olympics promote NBC's interests, too. For instance, Solomon touts hockey's fast-paced action as perfect for HD. It doesn't hurt that NBC also is in the first weeks of a contract to air NHL games.

Beyond high-definition, NBC's grandest achievement is just pulling all of this material together and helping viewers digest it. Recognizing the huge interest that viewers, particularly women, have in figure skating, every night on USA at 6-7 p.m., the network will feature a one-hour special called Olympic Ice, highlighting everything from the day's performances to personalities to rumors or judging controversies. Solomon credits NBC Universal Sports and Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol with making the idea work.

Brad Adgate, senior VP/director of research at Horizon Media, likes the idea. “It's fishing where the fish are: There is a lot of audience for this sport, especially because Americans are historically strong in it and, since the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan Olympics, it has taken on a life of its own.”

Indeed, figure skating brings the same unpredictability as American Idol: The favorites don't always win. “It's a subjective sport,” Solomon says. “It has the costumes and the music and the whole creative side of it, and there seems to be such a drama every time.”

Curling Fever: Catch It!

The network's other major programming move is at the opposite end of the excitement spectrum. It's curling-mania! Most Americans have little to no knowledge about the sport, but maybe because it is so esoteric, it got “hot” during the 2002 games. So NBC is adding more curling, mostly on MSNBC and CNBC. “We didn't do any complete games in Salt Lake City, but this time we're doing two a day,” Solomon says. “There's an audience for it.”

The curling play is “a gamble worth taking,” says Larry Novenstern, executive director for national electronic media for Optimedia. “ Look at reality shows or poker on TV; this is something they can play out until it bottoms out.” Playing on CNBC and MSNBC, there's hardly a risk that too much curling will hurt ratings.

Then again, NBC Universal has substantially increased the amount of everything it will offer—41 hours more than two years ago—and particularly in terms of how much it will show live and in its entirety. That's especially true on the women's side of the ledger. The various networks will show all 54 hockey games live and carry all Team USA hockey games and the gold-medal games—both men's and women's—not only live and in their entirety but also completely commercial-free.

To fit all these sports into a cohesive package, NBC execs spent months placing each event into a grid and then moving each piece into its proper place.

Because of the time difference, events that air on NBC in prime time will all be on tape. Neal explains that, even though news competitors and even NBC's own Web site will post up-to-the-minute results and final scores, network research shows the masses want to sit and watch in prime time. NBC loves that idea.