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NBC experimenting to find right Games mix

With Salt Lake City a year away, the network works on what it learned at Sydney.

By SHARON GINN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 8, 2001


Chances are, you won't be attending the Salt Lake City Olympics. With neither the Winter nor Summer Games expected to return to the United States for another 10 years, tickets to the high-profile events in 2002 might be only slightly easier to secure than tickets to the Super Bowl.

And you didn't get those, either.

Nope, Salt Lake City is cold and too far away. You'll wait for Florida 2012 (or whatever).

Better to curl up with a warm TV when the Games begin one year from today. Especially now that NBC, still smarting from the heavy criticism and lower-than-expected ratings its coverage of the Sydney Games in September generated, says it will make changes.

First, the network is bringing in Mr. Olympics himself: Jim McKay. That normally would be impossible, as McKay, 79, has a lifetime contract with ABC. But the powers-that-be at three of the major networks (NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol, ABC Sports president Howard Katz and CBS Sports president Sean McManus, McKay's son and chief negotiator) made it happen.

And though McKay, host Bob Costas and NBC's cast and crew will be in Salt Lake to tell you the story, there won't be as many stories. This the network can promise.

NBC says it has learned that "viewers are less willing to sit through something that feels like a canned feature," said David Neal, head of production for NBC's Olympics coverage. "I think our coverage plans of the Olympics have to reflect that.

"Dick and I have talked about 'How do we make this different?' One of the things we're looking at is this whole idea of profiles. We're both still absolutely convinced that -- unlike the NBA or any of the other annual sports -- in the Olympics, the storytelling mantra that Dick learned from Roone (Arledge at ABC) and I learned from Dick is still absolutely paramount. At the same time, I think we're daily thinking about how we refine that, pacing being the key: What's the right formula? How many profiles? ... I can't say we've figured it out yet."

The real McKay

Viewers might forgive the network if McKay is doing the profiling.

McKay will join Costas nightly in some capacity, though plans are not final. Whatever McKay's role, it will be enough for many just to have McKay back in their living room.

Though he hasn't worked an Olympics since Calgary in 1988, he was the voice of the Games for more than two decades. He hosted ABC's coverage the last time the Winter Olympics came to the United States, at Lake Placid in 1980. Al Michaels is the announcer who uttered, "Do you believe in miracles?" but McKay's face is the one many Americans associate with the U.S. hockey team's stunning victory against the Soviet Union on its way to the gold medal.

"I think it was the greatest upset in the history of sports, anywhere, any time," McKay said last month.

Lights, camera ... action

Fewer profiles means more of the events. Much more.

As in Sydney, NBC will use cable stations MSNBC and CNBC. The tentative plans call for men's and women's hockey to be shown nightly on CNBC and curling, biathlon and some bobsled and luge weekdays on MSNBC. "Curling is very cool," Neal said.

Like everyone else in the television universe, NBC will find ways to bring viewers closer to the athletes. That likely will include interviews with players and coaches between periods in hockey games, and cameras in all sorts of new places, including an aerial system for the ski jump.

The network likely will use a line in downhill skiing similar to the world-record line it used in swimming coverage. In skiing, the line would represent the pace of the fastest skier so far.

In addition to scheduled events, coverage will include the Olympic bribery scandal and Utah's Mormon history. Neal said details are not complete.

What not to do

NBC, which bought the rights to the 2000 Games for $705-million and reportedly spent at least $125-million on production, still made a bundle because it sold $900-million worth of ads. But the network's decision to show almost nothing live, combined with the 15-hour time difference between Sydney and the East Coast, caused ratings to drop to the lowest levels of any Games since 1968. As a result, NBC had to give away ad time after the Olympics ended to make up for the ratings shortfall.

Ebersol admits NBC did "a substandard job of setting (ratings) predictions." But, he said last week as he prepared for the launch of the XFL, "I don't look at the Olympics as a failure. Obviously what's changed about our business is the fact that there's so many niches where many people can go to watch television."

NBC paid $545-million for the rights to the 2002 Games. Even though many events will be televised live, nightly coverage will be less than the five hours a night from Sydney. That's partly because the Winter Games are far more limited in scope.

"Anything that moves in Salt Lake," Neal said, "is going to get on the air somewhere."

Salt Lake 2002

WHEN: Feb. 8-24.

WHERE: In and around Salt Lake City.

TICKETS: The Initial sale to the U.S. public is over; most events are sold out. For premium ticket programs (priced above face value), hotel-ticket packages and single tickets (on sale this spring), call (877) 222-2802 or visit http://www.saltlake2002.com.

Destination: Salt Lake City

The United States will be represented by about 206 athletes (117 men, 89 women). In lieu of trials, several sports select teams by a point system that factors in athletes' performances in various events. Here's how, and when, the teams will be selected:

(Sport, selection date(s), site, method)

Biathlon- Dec. 26-Jan. 2 -- Soldier Hollow Olympic Venue*- Point system

Bobsled (men/women, 2-man) -- Dec. 29-30 -- Utah Olympic Park, Park City*- Trials

Bobsled (men, 4-man) -- Jan. 3-4 -- Utah Olympic Park* -- Trials

Curling -- Dec. 11-16 -- The Ice Sheet, Ogden, Utah* -- Trials

Figure skating -- Jan. 5-12 -- Staples Center, Los Angeles -- Trials

Ice hockey (M) -- Dec. 22 -- N/A -- Coach's choice

Ice hockey (W) -- Dec. 22 -- N/A -- Coach's choice

Luge -- Dec. 31 -- World Cup events -- Point system

Skeleton -- January -- Utah Olympic Park* -- Point system

Skiing (Alpine) -- Jan. 28 -- World/Gold cups -- Point system

Skiing (Cross country) -- Jan. 21 -- World/Gold cups -- Point system

Skiing (Freestyle) -- Jan. 22 -- World/Gold cups -- Point system

Skiing (Jumping) -- Jan. 15 -- World/Gold cups -- Point system

Skiing (Nordic combined) -- Jan. 20 -- Various events -- Point system

Skiing (Snowboarding) -- TBD -- Various events -- Point system

Speed skating (Long track) -- Dec. 19-23 -- Olympic Oval, Kearns, Utah*- Trials

Speed skating (Short track) -- Dec. 14-16, 21-23- Steiner Arena, Salt LakeCity -- Trials

* 2002 Olympic venue.

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