NBC telecasts to focus on storytelling Network zeroes in on female viewers

July 17, 1996|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Attention, female television viewers: NBC is looking for you.

Between Friday's opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics and the closing on Aug. 4, NBC is determined to make its presentation as female-friendly as possible, and for good reason.

Unlike most televised sporting events, where women make up approximately 40 percent of the audience, the Olympics bring roughly a 50/50 viewer split of men and women.

And that's why over the 17 days that the Olympics unfold here, the NBC effort -- a total of 171 1/2 hours at a cost of $456 million -- will be less about the cold recitation and reporting of event results and more about the warm and fuzzy telling of the stories of the athletes who will take part in the proceedings, on the theory that women prefer warm and fuzzy over cold and no-nonsense.

"Our audience expects something different, something better," said NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol. "There's a sense of idealism about the Olympics, [and that] makes storytelling the absolute key to the Olympics."

The usual sports viewer knows that story lines are an important component of any run-of-the-mill telecast, but the Olympics aren't your run-of-the-mill sports broadcast.

In their first Summer Games telecasts from Seoul, South Korea, in 1988, NBC employed a more clinical, journalistic approach, which resulted in driving women away from their sets by the second week of the Games.

"In the midst of that great story of [diver] Greg Louganis on his way to his first gold medal, they were doing split-screen coverage of volleyball," said Ebersol, who took over the sports division after the 1988 Olympics. "You simply can't do that. You have to tell a story, tell it well and then move on."

For these Games, as it did in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain, NBC will tell plenty of stories of athletes, mostly during the 78 hours of prime-time coverage, using the "up close and personal" model Ebersol learned from Roone Arledge. When Arledge, now president of ABC News, ran ABC's sports division, he made that network the seemingly permanent home of the Olympics.

During the Olympics, NBC will air close to 140 of those profiles, running from 3 to 45 minutes, of former and current participants, designed to keep women riveted to the coverage.

"Men will stay to see action and results," said executive producer Tom Roy, who will co-produce the prime-time schedule with Ebersol. "[Women] need to be told stories, they need to have a rooting interest and they need to understand who the sympathetic figure is."

The network also has jiggered the Games schedule to extend the run of sports with mostly female appeal to help keep women tuned in.

For instance, the run of gymnastics, the sport with the biggest appeal to women in the Summer Olympics, has been lengthened from seven days and nights in Barcelona to nine this year, and will carry the viewers into swimming and diving, two sports with female appeal, during the second week.

Besides that female appeal, the other component that makes the Olympics special is the money. NBC paid a record fee for the Atlanta Games, in part because of the obvious interest to an American audience, but also because the Olympics provide a steady source of highly rated programming over a series of nights that bring the network a valuable platform to promote its other products.

Not to mention make it money. Ebersol said the network has taken in $675 million in gross ad sales, over $100 million more than it projected in 1993, and $150 million more than NBC made in Barcelona.

Ebersol said viewers will see about nine minutes of network commercials per hour in prime time, a minute less than in Barcelona, even with the larger revenue pool, because there are fewer sponsors, who are paying more money.

Though much of the prime-time telecasts will be live, considerable portions will be taped. However, as in Barcelona, NBC will not announce the results of a taped event before it has aired, and generally will stay with an event until its conclusion.

"We will not jump around just to prove that we can jump around," said Ebersol. "We will not spoil the party for our audience that wants to live out and fully experience the Games as they develop. If you'll pardon the expression, we'll leave no story before its time."

The announcing assignments will look largely similar to those in Barcelona. Bob Costas, who won a sports Emmy Award as prime-time host in 1992, will return to the same role this year. Greg Gumbel will anchor the weekday morning coverage and will join Ahmad Rashad on the weekend daily programs. Jim Lampley and Hannah Storm will anchor the late-night shows.

Dick Enberg will be co-host of Friday's opening ceremonies with Costas, and will join him each night to introduce an essay he and a production staff have prepared from the coverage.

From a technical standpoint, most of NBC's innovations for the Atlanta Games relate as much to cost savings as to wizardry.

For example, to help keep costs low, NBC will split production facilities between the International Broadcast Center on the ground floor of the Georgia World Congress Center and its New York headquarters by way of 35 fiber-optic lines. Those lines will carry feeds along the 800-plus miles between the two cities, permitting production work to be done in New York, thus saving the cost of building additional broadcast facilities in Atlanta.

The network will cover some road cycling, canoeing and equestrian events via a mobile field production trailer that will travel from event to event, carrying a full control room with it, freeing up that much space at the IBC.

The most noticeable piece of new technology for viewers will be a camera mounted inside a 53-foot glass tube that will follow divers from the top of the 10-foot platform down into the water.

Pub Date: 7/17/96

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