Live ... From Athens! It's Friday Afternoon

In a highly unusual move, NBC has opted to air a major chunk of its broadcast network coverage of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens live.

Live coverage—or more specifically the lack of it—has been a subject of controversy for NBC since it acquired its Olympics package (for $3.6 billion) covering the Games from 2000 to 2008.

Critics—"purists," others might say—have complained that NBC has diluted the "must see" nature of Olympic competition by its frequent use of taped packages, often accompanied by lengthy biographies of many of the star athletes at the Games.

But NBC has countered that the Olympics are much more than a sporting event and that they cry out for story telling in a dramatic fashion that wouldn't necessarily be appropriate for your typical NFL telecast. The Games draw hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide. Women make up half or more of that audience, and, according to NBC's research, they like the story telling nature of the network's approach.

At its affiliate meeting in New Orleans last week, the network told stations that it would air live coverage of the Athens games (Aug. 13-29, 2004) from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. ET each weekday afternoon throughout the competition.

For most of its non-U.S.-based Games, NBC has aired very little live coverage on the broadcast network, delegating much of it to its co-owned cable networks, CNBC and MSNBC.

But 12:30 to 4 p.m. roughly equates to prime time in Europe, when a number of wide appeal events are expected to be scheduled. And NBC Network Television President Randy Falco said the network believes there will be enough high-demand events in Athens to go live in the afternoon and still present a taped prime time package that will generate big ratings.

"We wouldn't do anything to jeopardize the high ratings in prime time that our advertisers have come to expect," said Falco.

The network has not yet announced the roster of on-air talent for the Athens Games, but network insiders say it's a safe bet that Bob Costas, who has been the prime time host for the past several Games will once again have a prominent role.

With just 564 days left before the start of the Athens Olympics, the network has a healthy start on the ad sales front. It's estimated that the network is more than half way to its goal of $1 billion-plus in ad sales for the Games (NBC's ad sales total for the 2002 Sydney Summer Olympics was $900 million). That's largely due to the fact that a number of advertisers have packages that apply to all the Olympics for which NBC holds the rights.

General Motors, for example, is paying NBC $900 million alone for sponsorship rights and exclusive dibs on the domestic car and truck categories for all five Games through 2008.

Other major sponsors include Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Visa. Home Depot also has a multi-Games package, under which it is spending about $10 million for the Athens Olympics. Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, Bank of America and Chevron Texaco are also sponsors.

Meanwhile, both ad agency executives and NBC affiliates say they like the live component that NBC is adding to the Athens mix. "With the time difference that's a smart thing to do," said Bob Riordan, senior vice president for MPG, New York.

"When ever you start doing a lot of tape delays the numbers just don't work," he said, referring to the fact that the U.S.-based games, which are for the most part live, usually command bigger audiences than foreign-based games. That trend was demonstrated by the last two Olympics. The network was forced to give advertisers make goods during the 2002 Sydney Olympics, while coverage of the Salt Lake games surpassed NBC's ratings guarantees.

During the Athens games, NBC will present taped packages in prime time due to the time difference. And Riordan believes the ratings will hold up if the network makes the right choices. "It shouldn't hurt them too much if they get the right events."

Joe Berwanger, president and general manager of NBC affiliate WDIV-TV Detroit, praised the network's move to put the live afternoon coverage on the air. "That would be good," he said, noting that much of NBC's live coverage of non-U.S. games to date has been on its cable networks.

Berwanger said he likes NBC's story-telling approach. "I'm a big fan of what they've done with the past Olympics."