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Olympic Proportions: NBC's Plans for a Beijing Bonanza

In past summers, when the Olympic Games hit television airwaves, die-hard fans of niche sports like archery or fencing were usually left out in the cold. Such so-called “minor” Olympic sports had trouble delivering audiences large enough to justify airtime.

But in a radical shift reflecting a more technologically savvy era, fans of all 35 Olympic sports will be able to view their favorite events at the upcoming Beijing Games. For the first time, NBC -- which has televised every Summer Games since 1988 -- will provide coverage of every sport on either the network; its Spanish-language outlet, Telemundo; five of seven major NBC Universal-owned cable channels; or by streamed video on NBC's Olympics Web site, Fans won't have to miss a single épée thrust.

“This is the first time the Olympics will have an on-demand feel to it,” said sports-business analyst David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “Instead of the broadcaster pushing events, you'll have consumers pulling it themselves.”

After being criticized in the past for limited and delayed Olympic coverage -- not to mention for its ill-fated Triplecast pay-per-view deal for the 1992 Barcelona Games -- NBC is now going to an unprecedented extreme. Of 3,800 possible hours of Olympic competition, the network will air 3,600, with 1,400 running on television and another 2,200 being streamed online. There will also be extensive offerings for mobile phones and wireless devices.

The array of programming options is NBC's nod to changing viewing habits and an aggressive play to snare as many “viewers” as possible. The network anted up nearly $900 million for rights to the Beijing Games (part of an overall $4.2 billion Olympic TV package for the Summer and Winter Games from 2006-12). At a time when TV networks are losing audience share and consumers have more media choices than ever, NBC is casting the Olympics out as a bobbing lure to as many consumers as possible.

“Because of the way the digital world has vastly expanded, we have the ability to present almost all of the Olympic content on some platform,” NBC Olympics executive vice president David Neal said.

More than one-half of the events will be shown live. For the first time since the 1998 Atlanta Games, NBC's primetime coverage of selected major events -- including medal swimming, gymnastics, some track and beach volleyball -- will air live on the East Coast. (To accommodate the time change, events will be held in the early morning in China.) In another advancement, every jump, stroke or kick on NBC and its HD channel, Universal HD, will be delivered in HD.

To further spread Olympic fever, immediately following events, NBC will provide AP with text, photos and video links, allowing AP customers expanded content.

Different sports will be earmarked for particular NBC networks. While USA Network will be home to lots of Dream Team basketball coverage, MSNBC will offer daytime airings of at least seven sports, including softball, wrestling and soccer. CNBC, as in past Games, will run boxing and overnight views of weightlifting and volleyball. And the hope is that a daily half-hour gymnastics recap, plus tennis and equestrian events, will be popular with Oxygen's female viewers.

Within NBCU's stable, Bravo and Sci Fi Channel will not air any competition.

As the Aug. 8 opening ceremony approaches, the industry is watching events in China closely. The lead-up to the Games has been plagued by reports of media difficulty working with the Chinese government and concerns over access journalists will have to cover events outside the scope of the Games, including protests. Advertisers and media buyers are also a bit anxious that their messages might be associated with negative news.

NBC has big dollars at stake. At press time, the network had sold approximately 96% of its Olympic inventory and stands to make more than $1 billion in ad revenue for the Beijing Games.

And ever the good partner, NBC insisted that the Chinese government has been accommodating. “In five years, we've had nothing but terrific cooperation,” Neal said. “In any offshore Olympics, there is a process of learning local customs and regulations. That was true in Sydney, Athens and Beijing.”

The real measure of China's openness will be tested by news coverage during the Games. The NBC News division has extensive plans, including broadcasting Today in China during the Games, as well as sending NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams and reporters on location.

While news has quieted in recent weeks, the media and advertisers will continue monitoring conditions. “NBC's challenge is to properly balance and juxtapose sports with relevant news,” Carter said. “They also need to do so in a credible way so people don't believe the Chinese government is dictating what is going on. It is an interesting dance they have to do.”


NBC hopes to spread a positive, spirited Olympic message to potential viewers. To get word out, the network is bombarding its airwaves and cable channels and those of others with promos and crafting tie-ins across NBCU properties, including Universal Pictures and its theme parks.

The Olympics barrage began back on Thanksgiving, with the first wave of spots designed to pique viewer interest in the Games and its marquee athletes. NBC is now featuring approximately 20 star athletes in these spots “to establish a personal connection [to] viewers,” explained John Miller, chief marketing officer for the NBCU Television Group and president of The NBC Agency. Swimming phenom Michael Phelps, who has the opportunity to win eight Olympic golds -- a record for a single Games -- is the most prominent, with a half-dozen spots.

The latest wave of ads, which kicked off in recent weeks, plugs NBC's cross-platform plans. NBC must explain how to access the expanded coverage and direct users to the Web for localized listings. Most important, NBC is hyping its primetime network coverage, including Phelps' chance to make Olympic history. “His story will unfold live in primetime for eight nights. It is almost like a serialized drama every night,” said Mike McCarley, VP of strategic marketing, communications and promotion for NBC Sports and Olympics.

To extend the hype, NBC also tied in with the launch of Universal Pictures' summer blockbuster The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, which opened Aug. 1. In theaters, moviegoers see a two-and-one-half-minute Olympics trailer. And in the two weeks leading up to the Games, all NBCU cable channels (including Bravo and Sci Fi) will heavily promote the Games.

In the weeks before the opening ceremony, NBC shifted to its third strategy of “tune-in spots,” Miller said, heavily pushing live coverage and opening-weekend events across the NBC platforms.

NBC will also buy ad time on outside major cable networks, including ESPN and TNT. When the Games get underway, NBC will shift its media buying to radio, digital media and popular magazines including People and US Weekly. Cable operators and DirecTV will also run spots.

The network's outside media buys are estimated to be worth several million dollars (in the high-single-digits), and the ad time MSOs and DirecTV are providing is worth several million dollars more. On NBC alone, over 18 months, there are an estimated 2,000 gross rating points devoted to Olympic promos. While those spots on NBC and its cable networks are dedicated to promotional inventory, the time value could be worth $50 million.

While Beijing marks NBC's first foray into streaming events, the network is building off the positive online experience from previous Games. Coming out of the Athens Games in 2004, 90% of viewers said they would watch the 2006 Torino Winter Games on television and 76% said they would visit, according to research by NBC, Hearst-Argyle Television and Internet Broadcasting, which hosted the site for those Olympics. (Microsoft is behind the 2008 Web site.)

Those indications proved to be correct, as online usage spiked for Torino. During those Winter Games, the NBC Olympic site registered 381 million page views, up from 268 million for the Athens Games.

This time around, NBC's challenge is to make its Web site as good as its TV coverage. Equally important, analysts said, is the Web site's functionality. With so much coverage on so many platforms, NBC's site needs to guide viewers through the tangle of events on NBC, its cable channels and the Internet.

On, the TV-listings section is prominently placed on the top of the page and instructs users to enter their ZIP code to access local listings. Giving users an easy-to-use scheduling tool is key, said Marv Danielski, senior VP of integrated brand development for TV-consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates: “Whether you are a sports Web site, news or weather, if a site is not easy to navigate, you get blown out of the water.”

The expanded coverage is possible because of the Chinese Olympic organizers. Beijing Olympic Broadcasting, a partnership between China and the International Olympic Committee, provides reporting on all Olympic events. For the first time in Olympic history, HD cameras will be used exclusively.

For its part, NBC will pick up the feed and insert its own commentary. In some cases, NBC will supplement with cameras and coverage, particularly for major events. Some events will be produced from New York.

While swimming, gymnastics and track are expected to pull in huge ratings, NBC anticipates the usual sleeper sports. One candidate is table tennis, which is wildly popular in China and has a strong following in the United States. And many Americans will recall that the sport helped to open diplomatic channels between the United States and China more than 30 years ago. “It is possible that these positive factors could create a table tennis phenomenon,” Neal said.


Given the unprecedented plans, NBC and industry analysts are anxious to see how viewers consume these Games. Some critics say that by populating so many platforms, the network will diminish its own TV ratings. But with so many viewers going online for content, NBC is simply riding the tide.

The network also pointed out that Olympic viewers historically consume more when they are given more choices. When NBC began running Olympics on its cable networks, “We questioned whether the additional coverage would cannibalize or diminish interest in prime,” Miller said. Instead, it created a stronger appetite. When CNBC and Bravo ran events from Athens that ended at 7:59 p.m., 54% of viewers switched over to NBC's primetime, according to network research.

Miller expects that this time around, a greater number of viewers will come along for the wild ride.

“The audience is going to have a vast smorgasbord of Olympic viewing options,” he added. “If you want to experience the Games from a high level, NBC is perfect for you. If you want to dig down deep, you can watch on cable or the Web and see more than you've ever really seen before.”