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The Name of the Games is Promotion

In their purest form, the Olympics are a spectacle of human drama, set against the backdrop of sport. The world's best-trained and most competitive athletes take each other on in battles that occur only once every four years. The stakes are high.

But you must know that by now. After all, since January, NBC Universal has given more than 2,600 gross ratings points to promoting the Olympics. That means every man, woman and child in the U.S. should have seen an Olympic promo 26 times in the lead-up to the Games.

"That's before we start running it on cable, what the stations provide and what the individual multiple-system cable operators do as well," says John Miller, chief marketing officer for NBC Universal. "So there's a significant amount of work that gets done and a significant amount of creative that gets used for this huge exposure."

For NBC Universal, the Olympics are an excellent business strategy. The biennial event—Summer and Winter Games—is a ratings juggernaut, a brand builder, a product seller and a promotional platform of which dreams are made. Some 200 million Americans will watch the Summer Games this month. With seven broadcast and cable networks now at the company's disposal, NBC Universal will make the most out of its $4.3 billion Olympics investment, which extends through 2012.

NBC Universal will take advantage of the Games' late-summer time frame to launch NBC's fall schedule. Last January, NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker told the world the network would launch much of its fall schedule right after the Olympics, a full three weeks earlier than usual.

And during the Olympics, the network will tell the world—at least the part in the U.S.—about the fall season that starts right after the games end.

The Olympics will finish on Sunday Aug. 29. Fear Factor
and new drama Hawaii
will launch the next night, and round three of Last Comic Standing, DreamWorks' animated comedy Father of the Pride, and season four of Scrubs
will kick off on Tuesday Aug. 31.

NBC also will use the games to showcase two of its most important programs: The Apprentice
and Joey, both premiering Thursday Sept. 9.

Although promos are already running for many of these shows—particularly Joey, Father of the Pride
and Hawaii—what will change come Olympics time is that several of the spots will be Olympics-themed.

In one, Joey
stars Matt Le Blanc and Drea de Matteo watch an Olympics event on TV. An Apprentice-themed spot also is in the works.

The Olympics are so packed with content (and, presumably, advertising) that time for promos is cut almost in half. In a regular evening of prime time, six minutes are set aside for promos. During the Olympics, only 31/2 to four minutes are available.

The difference is that more than twice as many people will be watching. "During the Olympics, we are getting an 8 or a 9 rating in the 18-49 demographic and a 13 household rating. On a typical night," Miller says. "we are doing a 2.6 rating in the demo. So it's less total promo time but many more total gross ratings points."

Professional TV watchers say that, while NBC's promo plans make sense, there's still the challenge of keeping the viewers glued to the set as the season progresses. Even so, media pros generally agree that NBC's smart to start its season while it still has a big pile of Olympics viewers tuning in.

"Why promote new shows in a highly rated two-week event and then wait three weeks to premiere them?" asks Steve Sternberg, executive vice president and director of audience analysis at Magna Global USA. "Debuting shows early, right after the Olympics, will get NBC stronger viewer sampling than if they debuted the shows at the normal time. This will benefit good shows by getting them sampling they might not otherwise get. But a weak show will decline once regular first-run shows debut on other nets. Remember Whoopi
and Happy Family
last fall?"

Well, barely.

Although NBC's marketing gurus will use the Olympics to gather the largest audience possible for NBC's fall season, the focus in the lead-up to the Olympics will be on bringing in the younger set.

"People who are 35 years and older tend to watch the Olympics simply as a matter of course," Miller says. "It's probably on their calendar two years ahead of time. The 18- to 34-year-olds think of it as a special event, but they also think of it as not necessarily any more special than the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl or the MTV Music Awards. So it's our goal to get them to watch in far greater frequency than you might normally suspect."

To do that, NBC has created some zingy promos that feature up-and-coming Olympic stars, such as swimmers Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin, diver Laura Wilkinson, and decathalete Tom Pappas. The spots focus on the stars' bios and talents, but rock music and flashy graphics provide an edgy look and feel.

NBC has even created a long promo that's running in Regal Cinemas prior to movies. In that spot, several American athletes perform superhuman feats involving their sport to get themselves to Athens. General Motors cars are prominently featured. "There's a certain irreverence," says Vince Manze, president and creative director of The NBC Agency, "and humor is definitely a part of it."

For example, one spot features the geeky lifeguard for the U.S. Olympic Swim Team talking about his occupation's lack of challenge. Eventually, that lifeguard—played by an NBC Agency employee named Gary, who actually pitched the spot—will become a "viral character" that will pop up all over the Olympics games.

"We're sending him to a couple of the trials," says Miller, "and he's going to be reporting in and telling us about that. We'll be sending that out in a mass e-mail, and then, all of a sudden, people will be sending Gary the Lifeguard to their friends."

Whether people want to receive Gary the Lifeguard in their e-mail is another matter.

NBC Universal also is integrating the products and brands of Olympic sponsors into tailor-made promos.

"More and more, advertisers are interested in getting exposure before the Games in order to help push the event themselves and to tie into the excitement of the Games," Miller says. Spots have been created to highlight official Olympics sponsors, such as Budweiser, Coca-Cola and General Motors.

"If you pay a lot of money, you're official. If you don't pay as much, we're just proud of you," says Manze, always the jokester.