- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Couch potatoes everywhere finally have met their match with NBC’s plans for televising the 2004 Summer Olympics.

The peacock network, using its deep stable of affiliated cable networks, will air a mind-boggling 1,210 hours of Olympics coverage from Athens starting today. The number of hours is more than the past five Summer Olympics combined, exponentially more than any college bowl game marathon in January and would require more than seven weeks of nonstop viewing to watch it all.

Restraint this isn’t. But the additional hours will provide Olympic fans an unprecedented opportunity to see less popular sports, such as badminton, team handball and tae kwan do. All 28 sports in the Summer Games will be shown for the first time in Olympic TV history.

What possessed NBC to do this?

Two primary reasons lie at the heart of the decision to increase its coverage from 441 hours four years ago in Sydney, Australia, to 1,210 this time.

First, NBC will pay a record $793million for the broadcast rights to the Athens Games. Although the network has a solid history of earning good profits from the Olympics, the high fees require the network to offer as much ad time as possible to keep the earnings streak alive. With more than $1billion in ad sales already recorded — mostly for prime-time slots on NBC and much of it committed years ago in multi-Olympic purchases — the strategy is on its way to working.

Second, NBC has purchased cable networks Bravo, Telemundo and USA since the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, and funneling hundreds of hours of coverage to those networks helps NBC gain further carriage with cable operators, as well as greater awareness of their existence among potential viewers.

Combined with the main network, MSNBC, CNBC and NBC’s high-definition signal, the Olympics will be seen on seven channels, with at least one showing action in every hour between Aug.13 and Aug.29.

“This is best described as a great experiment,” said David Neal, executive vice president of NBC Olympics. “This allows us to really cater to all sorts of fans. The Olympics is still one of the few big events that still bring families together, and we’ll certainly be able to serve that audience. But those more hard-core fans that can’t get enough, there’s always going to be something for them at any time of day.

“This really evolved out of a brainstorming session, and [NBC Sports chairman] Dick [Ebersol] saying, ‘What if we covered all 28 sports.’ I’m as intrigued as anyone to see how this plays out,” Mr. Neal said.

Similar to prior Olympics, much of the 1,210 hours will be shown on tape delay; Athens is seven hours ahead of the U.S. East Coast. And NBC again will be following its custom of reserving key events such as swimming, gymnastics and men’s basketball for prime-time slots. But those interested in rowing trials, synchronized swimming and field hockey now have avenues as well.

“The real challenge has been adding the sports,” Mr. Neal said. “We’ve had to go out and find people who are experts in field hockey and team handball and badminton because those are a first, not only for us, but for any American television network.”

Among the unusual discoveries in that commentator search is ESPN hockey analyst Bill Clement, who will lead NBC’s badminton commentary. The former Philadelphia Flyer was a scholastic champion in the racquet sport in Quebec. And former Philadelphia 76ers president and black-belt martial artist Pat Croce will serve as a tae kwan do analyst.

The key question still facing NBC in Athens is whether all the extra cable coverage will cannibalize its prime-time viewership. Although NBC once again made money four years ago in Sydney, a shortfall in prime-time ratings forced the network to give free airtime to some sponsors to make up the difference.

“This certainly has a chance of lowering the average prime-time ratings, but ultimately they’ll be reaching more people overall and that does have value [to an advertiser],” said Tim Spengler, executive vice president of national broadcast for Initiative, a New York-based media-planning agency.

The extra hours also provide NBC a new challenge of providing viewers easy ways to sift through the confusion, particularly as some events will be shown live on one network and then truncated to a tape-delayed airing on another.

As a result, the network signed partnerships with TV Guide Channel, AT&T; Wireless, Dish Network and Zap2It.com, an online TV listing directory, to provide viewers access to daily schedules via cable TV, satellite TV, wireless phones and messaging devices, and the Internet. But NBC’s primary means of directing viewers from one event to another will be scrolls on the bottom of the screen and its own Web site for the event, NBCOlympics.com.

“The base still and probably will for some time be the network [NBC]. The most value is sold against the network,” Mr. Ebersol said. “We’re never trying to detract from that. As a matter of fact, we’re trying to add to that because, beyond being able to sell a bigger audience to our advertisers, we also have more platforms to promote back to the network. We can promote [to] audiences and move them through the course of the day watching the Olympics to prime time.”

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