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No winter of discontent

These aren't your father's bobsled races. NBC is looking to bring young viewers to its 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics coverage, using extreme sports and edgy advertising to attract a younger demographic.

Coming off the worst Summer Olympics ratings ever, NBC executives are going to extremes with their promotional efforts—this month launching a slew of ads aimed at the Gen X crowd. And at a time when money is tight, the network's promotional gurus are working with a trimmed-down budget and looking to unconventional ways to get the word out.

By February, the in-house NBC Agency advertising-promotional division will have produced some 200-plus promos geared to the Games. The NBC Agency began its push toward Salt Lake City last week during NBC's coverage of the NBA Finals with spots aimed at snowboarding, mogul-riding viewers.

"Anybody over 35 views the Olympics one way, and there is a younger section that views it a different way; we want to make sure we are getting both sides of that audience," says John Miller, co-president at the NBC Agency. "We are going to try to build characters, not necessarily Michelle Kwan —people know Michelle Kwan—but with athletes from other, nontraditional sports, such as something called Skeleton, which is sliding down on a luge face-first."

NBC owns the domestic broadcast coverage of the Winter and Summer Olympics through 2008, having paid $3.6 billion for the next five Games. The network is paying $555 million for the exclusive U.S. coverage of the Salt Lake Games and spent just over $700 million for last summer's 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics. Down Under was down under: The Australian Olympics posted the lowest-ever Summer Olympic ratings, with a 13.8 national household rating for the two-week event. NBC doesn't want a repeat.

"We're calling this phase Extreme Olympics," says Vince Manze, the other co-president of the NBC Agency. "We are going to focus on the fact that the Winter Olympics are a little wilder, a little more extreme. The popularity of extreme sports and not just with snow, but skateboarding, street luge, in-line skating and all of the rest, has just taken off over the last several years."

Miller and Manze have taped 20 different extreme-type spots that will debut over the next several weeks, focusing on everything from aerial skiing to snowboarding. The spots also use a rock song titled "My House," which was used for some XFL promo spots.

Manze singled out several spots, including one in which a coach tells a group of potential bobsledders about the sport. "He starts by saying you get into this bullet-shaped thing where you will go about 180 mph and we don't have any brakes. So it's going to be hard to stop. If we flip over, you will scrape your head right down to your brain. Then there is a pause, and all of the guys cheer."

After highlighting extreme sports, Miller and Manze say the next phase of Olympic thrust will focus on more-traditional athlete profiles. "I think people know American summer athletes better than they do winter athletes," Manze notes. "So we will devote three or four months, once they are picked to be on the team," trying to create awareness of these athletes and their histories.

Then it's on to the stretch drive, with nightly Olympic-torch-relay profiles and updates that will be sponsored by Coca-Cola. For the two months leading up to the Games, NBC will profile various torch-relay participants and follow the cross-country trek all the way to Utah.

Once the Games begin, NBC Sports takes over full time with nightly updates and promos geared to the next day's action. As for their budget, Manze and Miller won't disclose exactly what it is but say it's close but probably "a little bit less" than what the network spent on its promos leading into Sydney last summer.

"I think we have found smarter ways to do it; I think we are a little bit more organized," Manze says. "The more that you have the Olympics and know that you have them on a regular basis, you are able to anticipate and organize a little bit better."

Manze points to a movie trailer that will show up at theaters around the country this winter that will cost NBC almost nothing because it's filled with sponsored tie-ins. The one-minute "action-packed" trailer follows snowboarder Chris Cluge going down a slope—past various billboards and sponsored items, of course.