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Leaping the generation gap

Younger, hipper viewers with a jones for big thrills and bigger spills will be the Olympic target for NBC.

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 6, 2002

Make no mistake: NBC loves women who love figure skating, and it still adores those long, dramatic features that chew up excess airtime. As long as the network holds the rights to the Olympic Games, any Olympic Games, that's not going to change.

But the Salt Lake City Olympics, the first Winter Games on NBC since 1972, represents a departure for the network. Chastened by the backlash from its tape-delayed coverage of the Sydney Games in 2000 -- a public-relations debacle, if technically a ratings victory -- NBC has a different mind-set.

Prime-time coverage will be shorter. It will be hipper. And much of it will even be live. (Except on the West Coast.)

The reason? NBC is chasing the younger viewers, who can be as elusive as Apolo Ohno (and if you don't know who he is yet, NBC will tell you all about him soon enough). The vast majority of its promotional spots have been geared to draw in the 18-to-34 set, and the wooing will continue once the Games begin.

So legendary broadcaster Jim McKay may be back, but these are not Jim McKay's Olympics.

"Speed, risk and edginess are very pronounced in the Winter Olympics," NBC Sports and Olympics chairman Dick Ebersol said last week. "Outside of figure skating and curling, almost every single thing in the Games is tied up in speed. ... The polling that's been done by researchers all over the country, not only ours, but others, all show that the young have responded with the real knowledge that this is a riskier, edgier environment in sports."

Which is enough to make NBC president Randy Falco jump with glee. Younger viewers, the ones most coveted by advertisers, have been ignoring the NBA, the NFL and other sports in droves. Getting them to tune into the Winter Olympics would be a coup.

"I guess young people today have a lot of other things to do and probably don't view sporting events the same way that we did when we grew up," Falco said. "They have a lot of other outlets and interests, and major sports are suffering as a result."

Of course, given the fickle nature of said audience, NBC is not making any specific ratings predictions for these Olympics. Frankly, it can't afford to.

Before the Sydney Games began, the network told advertisers it expected an average prime-time rating of about 18, meaning 18 percent of U.S. households with televisions would be tuning in at any given time during prime time. But five hours a night of events that were 15 to 18 hours old failed to stir much interest in the American public. Though NBC still hammered the competition, it averaged a 14.8 rating, the worst for a Summer Games in at least 20 years, and had to give major advertisers free spots.

NBC has sliced its prime-time coverage for these Games to 31/2 hours a night, and Ebersol said it will be event-heavy. The network also said it won't tease viewers by starting important coverage early and making them wait two hours to see the rest.

"Events we start early in the evening, we're going to do our best to conclude early in the evening. We're not looking to play the game of starting something a little after 8 and concluding it after 11," said Ebersol, who in the past has played just that game.

For those who want things done the old way, there is consolation.

It wouldn't be an Olympics without the warm and fuzzy stories popularized by ABC's Roone Arledge and brought to life by McKay. That's literally how Ebersol learned the broadcasting business: He was an Olympic researcher for Arledge and McKay in 1968 and 1972.

McKay, 80, is on loan from ABC to work his 12th Olympics, his first in 14 years. Bob Costas will host, but McKay will join him as a special contributor.

As it did in Sydney, NBC will use cable networks CNBC and MSNBC to show things that won't make the network cut. CNBC will carry hockey coverage it calls unprecedented for a team sport in any Olympics. MSNBC also will have hockey, along with sports such as cross-country skiing, biathlon and curling.

The centerpiece, of course, will be figure skating and its reliable, mostly female, fans, who the network knows are numerous enough to keep the ratings respectable.

But NBC is counting on more.

"There'll be anywhere from 180- to 190-million unique viewers to NBC during those 17 days," Falco predicts. "We'll win every day of prime time and we'll probably win every hour, which is pretty extraordinary."

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