Story lines such as Michael Phelps (pictured here in the 2008… (Paul Kitagaki Jr. / McClatchy-Tribune )
Baltimore's Jim McKay anchored the first American telecast of the Summer Olympics in 1960 from a primitive CBS studio in Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Coverage of the Rome Games totaled 20 hours and cost the network $394,000 in rights fees.
On Friday night, starting with the Opening Ceremonies, NBC Universal will launch what will ultimately total 5,535 hours of Olympics coverage across six network and cable outlets and one live streaming website over 17 days and nights. Among the hosts in London will be Bob Costas, Al Michaels, Dan Patrick and Mary Carillo.The cost of rights to these Games: $1.18 billion.
Even the man in charge of NBC's coverage, executive producer Jim Bell, says the size and scope of the TV production occasionally give him pause. And he points to the media he now oversees as the primary reason for the exponential growth in coverage and for one of the largest challenges he and NBC face.
Thanks to new technology, media operations like Comcast-owned NBC Universal have a wide array of outlets on which to telecast and stream the Games. But even though NBC owns exclusive broadcast rights, new media have made it impossible to control information. Because of the five-hour time difference, no Olympic events will take place in London during prime time in the United States, which means the day's results will already be known when Costas' showcase telecast begins each night.
"We're going to handle that situation in both a traditional way and a new way," Bell said in a telephone interview Wednesday from London. "The old way ... involves classic storytelling techniques in prime time. The new way ... the exciting thing here is that we're streaming everything live."
Bell's team will stream live 5,535 hours — every minute of competition — at nbcolympics.com rather than try to control or delay results to maximize exclusivity. The wall-to-wall online coverage is a first — and amounts to 71/2 months of 24/7 viewing.
"Tradition is obviously the pillar of the prime-time show," Bell said. "And that involves packaging the prime events that have happened through the day — swimming, gymnastics, track and field and others — at a time when people are available to watch them on the network."
The prime-time storytelling techniques include about 50 profiles produced during the past two years by NBC Sports, in the tradition of the late Roone Arledge and Dick Ebersol, former head of NBC Sports.
Bell, 45, replaces Ebersol, who resigned last year as chairman of the NBC Sports Group. This is his first time in charge of NBC's coverage of the Games.
The new-media strategy involves more than "just flipping a switch and putting things online," according to Bell, who also serves as executive producer of NBC's"Today"show.
"It's also about trying to be a little more creative with how we're handling tablets and mobile and the two-screen experience for people so that they can use their iPads, use their hand-held devices and get content, get information, find out more about these competitors or this venue or this town or this coach or team or foreign athlete they are suddenly taking an interest in," he said.
For example, NBC is offering two free apps, NBC Olympics Live Extra and NBC Olympics. The latter will offer athlete profiles, columns and a Primetime Companion feature with information synched to what is being shown on NBC. A social media component will enable viewers to watch and interact with one another through Facebook and Twitter.
The "second screen" components will also work with NBC's sister cable channels: CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo, Telemundo and NBC Sports Network.
But for all that new media, you still need compelling story lines if you hope to attract an audience big enough to warrant the $1.18 billion investment. Pointing first and foremost to Baltimore'sMichael Phelps, Bell says he's got that.
And there is no need for embroidery in telling the story of Phelps' effort to become the most decorated athlete in Olympic history.
"We just sort of have to sit back with a heady mixture of admiration and awe for what he might accomplish here," said Bell, who will be covering his ninth Olympics.
One of the prime chroniclers of this last leg of the Phelps' journey will be Bucky Gunts, Baltimore native and four-time Emmy Award winner for his direction of previous Olympics. In addition to directing NBC's coverage of the Opening Ceremonies, Gunts will be at the helm of NBC's nightly prime-time show throughout the Games.
Like most media stories, in the end, NBC's coverage of the Olympics will in large part be judged in dollars and cents.