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Olympic games may bring home gold

NBC hopes to recoup $894 million investment

NBC is betting heavily that the $894 million it’s ponying up on the Summer Olympics in China will be money well spent.

In order to make sure the network is getting proper bang for the buck, the Peacock will offer a combined 3,600 hours of coverage — 2,400 hours more than Athens in 2004 — on not only the flagship web but many of NBC Universal’s cable and digital outlets.

From USA to MSNBC to CNBC to Oxygen to NBCOlympics.com, the Peacock is affirming that whenever viewers turn on a TV or computer Aug. 8 to Aug. 24, there’ll be plenty of gymnastics, swimming and javelin-throwing to be had.

The Olympic commitment is huge and some might say risky, considering the aura and stature of the Games has decreased over the past few decades.

“Will NBC get its money back in ads and cross-promotion? It’s tough to figure out at this point,” says David Carter, principal of the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group. “Everything is moving so fast in terms of handling online strategy and how they will integrate advertisers into new media. It’s like hitting a moving target.”

The public’s perception of the Olympics has changed greatly from the days of Mark Spitz and Mary Lou Retton. Where once America’s eyes were solely focused on how our athletes were performing versus the rest of the world — all against fewer entertainment choices around the dial — those days are long gone.

And competing networks aren’t as frightened of going up against the Games anymore.

“The days of counterprogramming against the Olympics are over,” says Fox scheduling topper Preston Beckman. “The Olympics aren’t as big an event as they once were. I don’t know how big it’ll be on broadcast TV.”

There are several reasons these Games might have NBC concerned, about three months before the Olympic flame is lit.

One is the 12-hour time difference between Beijing and the East Coast (15 hours for the West Coast). Although premiere events such as swimming and gymnastics will be shown live in primetime, winners in other sports will be determined long before their events are telecast at night in America. The network, however, feels this scenario isn’t anything new — having faced them at the Games in Athens and Sydney — and advertisers seem to be on board with the time differential.

For those wanting to watch events in real time, NBC’s cable partners and Web presence will provide coverage.

A bigger concern, certainly, is what’s been going on outside the athletic spectrum. Political unrest in China and issues involving Tibet and Darfur have created plenty of tumult. Protests have ignited as the Olympic torch makes its way around the globe to Beijing.

The network is now forced to soothe wary sponsors and advertisers who are hitching their brand to an Olympics that might be known more for what happens off the field than on.

“Sponsors don’t want anything to do with politics,” says Rick Gentile, director of the Seton Hall U. Sports Poll and a former exec at CBS Sports. “If stuff is happening in the streets, I’m sure they’re going to want NBC to be covering swimming and diving instead.”

Says Carter: “It’s a huge concern for NBC. They don’t want to turn this into a 2½-week news event, but the gang at NBC has a great relationship with advertisers, and they’re working on a resolution, rather than saying, ‘Too bad, you bought the ad time.'”

Sponsors, some of whom have paid approximately $70 million to be in partnership with the Games, certainly don’t want their brand affiliated with protests. Coca-Cola and McDonald’s want to be associated with gold medals, not police crackdowns.

NBC U chief exec Jeff Zucker says advertisers have shown no signs of concern about the political unrest so far.

“The fact is the Olympics are a sporting event on the world stage,” he told Reuters. “It’s not surprising that some would try to use that stage to further their own causes, and we understand that, but at the end of the day this is about the event, and both the advertisers and our viewers understand that.”

Demos for the Olympics have shifted over the past few Games from the 18-34 male, favored by nets such as ESPN, to a more general appeal with both genders and a range of ages tuning in. Women 25-54, especially, have produced a huge uptick.

More females watching can be attributed to the fact that the primetime incarnation of the Games has become filled with short profiles and human-interest stories about the athletes. The drama now is generated not by the scoreboard but by the long and often torturous road leading up the big event.

“It’s about maintaining the family audience,” Carter says. Adds Gentile: “I don’t think the Olympics are considered a pure sports event anymore. It doesn’t skew heavily for men, with more women watching. It’s not an ESPN type of property.”

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