NBC set to give Olympic viewers an eyeful

In excess of 370 hours to be on network's channels

Winter Olympics

Salt Lake City 2002

February 07, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Cue up the patriotism, the pathos and the TiVo. Strike up the bandwidth and pray for no snow. The Winter Olympics are about to begin bursting out of all of NBC's various outlets.

More than 370 hours of the sporting events are to be carried in the United States on NBC and its sister channels, a record. In Baltimore, WBAL-TV (Channel 11) will broadcast the network's primary fare, which will be heavily tilted toward alpine skiing and figure skating, along with wrap-ups of other events.

For purists, the place to turn will often be cable television. Regular viewers of CNBC, accustomed to following packs of stock traders rushing this way and that, can get a similarly visceral sensation from watching nightly hockey coverage on the financial cable channel.

Almost every ice hockey game will be shown in its entirety on CNBC, and all of the medal-round games are to be broadcast. MSNBC will offer extended coverage of live contests, which will include curling, biathlon events and cross-country skiing.

On the West Coast, the televised broadcasts will air delayed so that people are home in time to watch. Yet many of the events on NBC seen on the East Coast at night also will be shown on a delayed basis. Skiing, for example, only takes place during the day.

Additional information - including updated television schedules - can be found on the official Olympic and NBC Web sites (www.olympics.com and www.nbcolympics.com).

"We're not skewing our coverage toward anyone going in," Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC sports, said recently.

Nonetheless, as Ebersol acknowledged, "The sad and tragic elements of Sept. 11 also play into these games. I think people throughout the world, and in particular the United States, [are] looking for ways to come together. And the Olympics do offer that."

Less likely to receive much air time on NBC are other stories of the recent past about the Olympics and host state. Viewers probably won't hear much about the bribery and favoritism allegedly involved in Utah's efforts to land these Winter Games, nor the episodic struggles over the extent to which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints influences public life in that region.

Instead, there will be personal tales of endurance and striving and accomplishment to be told.

"We don't know why we'll remember Salt Lake," said ABC Sports stalwart Jim McKay, on loan to NBC for the Olympics. "We do know that the games will write their own story, and our job. ... will be to recognize that story and to weave it together for the people watching at home."

In presenting its coverage, NBC will rely heavily on three familiar faces - McKay, announcer Bob Costas and retired gold medal-winner skater Scott Hamilton. Jim Lampley will serve as the chief anchor for broadcasts on MSNBC and CNBC.

For those unsure of what curling involves other than hair, or where the half-pipe fits into the snowboarding set, these folks and their NBC brethren should spell it out.

NBC hopes to slice the 17-day Olympics both ways. On the one hand, the network hopes to package sports such as the wildly popular figure skating competitions as personal contests with vivid stories.

"It really is an entertainment event," said Randy Falco, president NBC's affiliate division. "In that sense, it brings to the set a much more diverse audience for instance, and a lot more females to the set than a pure sporting event would."

On the other hand, NBC is hoping to draw younger viewers by stressing the dangers involved in some of the newer sports, such as the skeleton event, in which competitors catapult themselves downhill lying facedown on the equivalent of a cafeteria tray.

"Speed, risk and edginess are very pronounced in the Winter Olympics," Ebersol said. Extensive polling, he added, "show that the young have responded with the real knowledge that this is a riskier, edgier environment in sports."

NBC has also worked with SporTVision, the people who brought us the computer-generated first-down line, to create enhanced graphics. Thanks to a series of sensors sent up around the rink, small flags representing specific skaters, for example, will whip around an oval in the corner of the television screen in "real time" to help viewers see the progress and actual speed of competitors.

"They're really not racing against one another," said Russell Quy, vice president of media production for SporTVision. "They're racing against the clock. We try to enhance the storyline that the broadcaster is trying to tell to the audience."

NBC paid up $3.8 billion to lock up the Olympics through 2008, and the network is keeping tight control of what images from the games can be used.

At ESPN, the nation's leading TV sports channel, officials say they can only use two minutes of taped Olympic highlights during three-minute updates in its trademark SportsCenter programs. They can first run the day after the described events occurred. And they can only appear three times during that 24-hour period.

The games are likely to run away with the ratings this month, shoving aside the usual February sweeps period. Most executives with competing networks have already conceded that race. As a result, although it's considered a relatively weak market for broadcasters to sell advertising, NBC has roughly hit its $720 million advertising target, well above the break-even point of $650 million.

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