Stations Prep for Winter Games

NBC affiliates on the hunt for local angles
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While people from all corners of the globe will tune in to the Winter Olympics next month, the Games are a local story for numerous stations as well. The prolonged economic slump means most stations won't be sending the same level of resources to Vancouver that they've sent to previous Olympics, but the convenient Canadian locale and advanced methods of sharing digital content will enable them to still maintain a substantial presence at the Games.

As America witnessed when Michael Phelps was racking up golds in Beijing, the Olympics are a singular event that guarantees giant, engaged audiences. The Winter Games, airing on NBC, also give stations ample chance to promote their local programming to a wide array of viewers sampling the global gala. “It's obviously a big platform,” says Hearst Television VP of News Brian Bracco, who's sending around six people to gather content for all of Hearst's news-producing stations. “It's something that draws attention and gives us a platform to talk about our local product.”

The stations with the largest presence in Vancouver are, not surprisingly, NBC affiliates in markets that are typically coated with a layer of frozen precipitation this time of year. While the warmer-climate markets often count a significant amount of snowbirds with interest in winter sports among the populace, many affiliates there will rely on NBC's content provider NewsChannel for their footage instead of footing the bill for staffers to attend. “We just don't have a lot of luge runs here,” laments one NBC general manager in the Deep South. (To be sure, the Southern U.S. has had its share of winter weather this season.)

For some, the strategic planning for the Winter Games began when the Beijing wingding wound down. In September, several groups sent reporters to Chicago for a media summit featuring the athletes. Belo's KING Seattle, about a three-hour drive from Vancouver and the home market for speedskater Apolo Ohno, spent the last year “over-gathering” footage on the region's Olympians, according to President/General Manager Ray Heacox.

“This is as close as it could be to being a hometown Olympics for us,” says Heacox, who will have about 10 people in Vancouver at any given time, and will share content with Belo-owned NBC outlets in Portland, Boise and Charlotte. “It's a short way to go for Washingtonians.” (KING will also offer Olympic content on its Universal Sports digital channel.)

While NBC is no longer producing its O-Zone nightly Olympics program, several stations, including some at Belo, Hearst and Gannett, will air their own versions of it—often keeping the O-Zone/Olympic Zone name intact.

But it's not only those a quick hop from western Canada that will be well represented at the Games. Gannett will send around seven bodies from its Atlanta, Phoenix, Denver and Minneapolis NBC affiliates, and will use its new ContentOne division to supply local angles for its stations and for USA Today. “It's an opportunity for us to leverage content in ways we've never done before,” says KUSA Denver Interactive VP Tim Dietz. “It's a great venue for showcasing Gannett's depth as a news aggregator.”

Hearst's crew, which began gathering cellphone numbers for Olympic athletes based in its markets last year, will provide its stations with live reports in their morning newscasts, among other programs. “It helps set up the day,” Bracco says. “It's a forward look at what's going on in Vancouver.”

Broadcasting in what's billed as the Amateur Sports Capital of the World (see Market Eye, p. 17), Dispatch's WTHR Indianapolis is sending eight staffers. The coverage actually started a month before the Games, as talent began assembling what President/General Manager Jim Tellus calls a “travelogue” in Vancouver to get viewers familiar with the local layout. The scene-setters flavor the newscasts each day, and WTHR will air a 7:30 p.m. nightly special during the Games.

“We've always been a big Olympics station,” Tellus says. “It's big here, so it's smart for us to make that investment.”

Reporters will, of course, keep viewers up to date on multimedia platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and NBC affiliates will customize their NBCOlympics.com microsites with local content. KUSA, for one, plans to have a Webcam offering users a peek inside the reporters' workspace in Vancouver.

Stations envision a healthy ratings—and revenue—boost from the Games, though some executives say that the expansion of Nielsen's ratings-trimming Local People Meters (LPMs) will make comparing Vancouver to previous Games a case of apples and oranges for stations in major markets.

Bonneville's KSL Salt Lake City may see as much as a 40%-50% ratings boost over its typical NBC prime, says VP of News Con Psarras, who will have two to three staffers in Vancouver. “We regard ourselves as an Olympic city,” he says, “and we've got a large number of local residents competing in the Games.” (Salt Lake, of course, hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics.)

super bowl-level interest

And while happy revenue stories have been few and far between for stations the last few years, general managers say the Games will build on the early 2010 advertising rally. Frank N. Magid Senior VP Marv Danielski says the Games sustain Super Bowl-esque interest over 16 nights—for viewers and advertisers alike.

“Buys are coming down late, but stations should get a premium,” he says. “The ad market is picking up a bit; there should be good, solid representation of local ads on the stations.”

Managers at NBC affiliates give the network high marks for its Olympics work, saying NewsChannel boss Bob Horner has a knack for maximizing compelling content, and NBC Olympics guru Dick Ebersol produces human-interest stories like no one else in the business.

For NBC, the Games are a chance to forget about the network's humiliating primetime—and late-night—missteps for a few weeks. For U.S. viewers, it's an opportunity to forget about the miserable recession, the Christmas terrorist attack and an increasingly rancorous political landscape. For 16 days, at least, everyone's rooting for the same team.

“It's a great pick-me-up for the country as it comes out of a really tough year,” Danielski says. “People will be in really good spirits about the Games.”

E-mail comments tomichael.malone@reedbusiness.com, and follow him on Twitter:@StationBiz

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