HOLLYWOOD — It’s not just the athletes who will be jumping through hoops at the upcoming Olympic Games in Athens.
Newly merged NBC Universal is betting a pretty penny that it can sway more than just aging male baby boomers to tune into a record number of hours devoted to the 28 sports that make up the Summer Games.
To that end, the company has made a conscious effort to focus its promos on a quartet of likely American medal winners and, to attract those elusive 18-34-year-old viewers, is putting the emphasis on “the coolness of watching the Olympics.”
That they’re unspooling in their historic birthplace in Greece should have been a thrilling concept — the athletes are actually running one race exactly where they did so 2,500 years ago — but given the times we live in, the overall venue has come across as a security and logistical nightmare. Some 45,000 security personnel will be on hand, outnumbering athletes, team officials and the media combined.
An electrical blackout last week in Athens did not bode well, nor does the fact that the Greek government really didn’t focus on infrastructure overhaul until 18 months ago. Even if there are no SRO crowds, those who do attend the Games will likely have to contend with marathon-length lines and missed start times.
But the big question is: Will most folks tune into the Games on TV?
On one hand, controversy — in the form of a steriod use probe of athletes such as marathoner Marion Jones — could pique viewers’ interest. Or it could simply be a turnoff.
Another potential hurdle: The time difference between Greece and the U.S. (seven to ten hours) may make the outcome of many contests less than dramatic when they eventually air.
These challenges are as daunting as those facing Michael Phelps, the U.S. swimmer who hopes to break Mark Spitz’s records by collecting a whopping seven medals.
Phelps, along with a small coterie of attractive strong contenders — decathlete Tom Pappas, diver Laura Wilkinson and swimmer Natalie Coughlin and the American female gymnasts — have already been identified by NBC marketers as likely viewer favorites.
Vet anchor Bob Costas points out that, unlike the dangerous and often quite offbeat Winter Games (think the luge), the Summer Olympics are “relatable” sports that a wider swath of folks typically enjoy.
In any case, a lot of impressive records are already being broken by NBC in this 28th edition of the modern-day Games.
For one thing, it is airing more hours of competition and analysis than it did in the last five Games combined: some 1,200 hours, compared to 440 hours during the Sydney event four years ago.
And for the first time American viewers will see an example of massive corporate synergy at work as the coverage spreads over what the company is calling “the networks of NBC” — all seven of the combined broadcast and cable outlets of the Peacock and Universal.
Furthermore, NBC-owned Telemundo will broadcast an unprecedented 169½ hours of the Games in Spanish for U.S. auds. And much of NBC’s coverage will be available in high-def, at least part of the time.
“Just 18 months ago I still had doubts,” NBC U sports chairman Dick Ebersol admitted at last week’s Television Critics Assn. press tour, “But the new Greek government is convinced that the Games must succeed.”
Most of the sports take place in just two distinct locations, which is fortunate for logistics. Ebersol did say he’d advise staff “not to wander off in to a discotheque at 2 a.m. in the morning.”
As for the emphasis in this year’s coverage, Ebersol said U.S. announcers over the years have become much less nationalistic than broadcasters in other countries generally are. But he pointed out, the U.S. is now — after the breakup of the old Soviet Union — the only country that fields contenders in every single sport.
“There’s no longer any ‘we’ and ‘us’ in the mouths of American sports anchors,” he said.
Though led by Costas (himself returning to his family’s home country), the Peacock has hired a number of other co-anchors and relay announcers, including tennis vet Mary Cirillo, to steer the coverage on the various channels involved.
The Peacock still has a few ad avails left, with spots going for an average $700,000 per 30-sec. Net hopes to hit $1 billion in ad revenues from the Games, having paid almost $800 million for the rights.
Not that a cost-benefit analysis is that cut-and-dried: With so many variables — the value of the Games to the affils, the advertisers, the fall sked, the latenight and early morning shows, the various NBC channels, other sports — it may make this a tricky undertaking even for General Electric.