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Los Angeles Times, Published June 04 2012

More than one way to watch the Games

LOS ANGELES – On July 27, a torchbearer will trot into a new $770-million stadium in London and light that famous flame. And for the next 17 days, NBC will race to ensure that Americans stay glued to every second of the 2012 Summer Olympics – on tablets, smartphones, laptops and (oh, yeah) conventional TV sets.

Thanks to live streaming, social media and good ol’ broadcasting, these games are destined for a reach that will rival that of lanky gold medalist swimmer Michael Phelps. In fact, they will be the most-covered Olympics in history: NBC is planning a record 5,535 hours across all its platforms, including MSNBC, Bravo, CNBC, NBCOlympics.com and even a first-ever 3-D service.

The broadcast network alone will serve up a record 272.5 hours, compared with 225 hours for the Beijing games four years ago. As of this writing, the network has already sold a record $900 million in Olympic ad sales, with more to come (although the events may still lose money for the network; more about that later).

Finally, something happening in Britain will get more attention than the former Kate Middleton’s fashion choices.

Of course, you’ll get to see Phelps, perhaps these Games’ biggest American star, swim for glory before his promised retirement. But that will be a small slice.

Marathon fan? You can witness every excruciatingly exhausting moment on NBC’s dedicated website. Love boxing? CNBC will sock you with all the upper cuts and right jabs you could possibly desire. Will Telemundo deliver for Spanish speakers? Si, claro. And then there will be endless commentary and “up close and personal” features that help viewers develop a rooting interest in many athletes they’ve never even heard of before.

“People love the stories,” said Jim Bell, executive producer of the Olympics coverage (and also of NBC’s “Today”). As a broadcaster, “you have to engage that.”

So all the pieces are in place for a massive NBC win – which, given the network’s recent ratings performance, it could sorely use. And yet something, or more accurately someone, will be missing. All the fancy camera work this time around won’t capture the person who’s essentially redefined the Olympics for Americans. And that person has never had a gold medal draped around his neck before tens of thousands of cheering spectators. He’s not even an athlete.

For two decades, Dick Ebersol brought the Olympics to Americans. As president and later chairman of NBC Sports, he made his employer synonymous with the games. That includes the 1996 Atlanta and the 2008 Beijing contests, the latter the most-watched TV event in U.S. history with 215 million total viewers, according to Nielsen.

As a businessman, Ebersol – a protege of Roone Arledge, the late ABC whiz who ushered the Olympics into the modern broadcasting age (as viewers old enough to recall the U.S. hockey team’s triumph in 1980 already know) – was bold and visionary; he was the mastermind behind the $2-billion deal with the International Olympic Committee in 2003 that snagged NBC the U.S. rights to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics as well as the London games.

But Ebersol – who resigned from NBC almost exactly a year ago, just after the network was sold by GE to the cable giant Comcast – was hardly just a numbers guy. He knew how to get millions of Americans to care about sports like swimming and gymnastics, which they paid precious little attention to at any other time. He intuited how to convey Olympic tales of agony and triumph on-screen.

“Ebersol made a conscious effort to show events in prime time that the whole family will watch,” said Andrew C. Billings, a professor and sports media expert at the University of Alabama and author of the book “Olympic Media: Inside the Biggest Show on Television.” “He quickly discovered there was a large tune-out factor from women as soon as boxing came on; thus, there’s no longer boxing in prime time.” (Or at least that was true in the past; there will be evening coverage on CNBC this time around, according to NBC.)

“In fact, 93 percent of the 2008 prime-time coverage in Beijing was devoted to just five sports: swimming, track and field, gymnastics, diving and beach volleyball,” Billings added. “All of these events can be spliced into digestible TV-friendly segments and all, even more critically, appeal beyond the core sports base of men.”

As a result, the Olympics are one of just two major televised sporting events that draw more female viewers than men. (The other is the Kentucky Derby.) Ebersol even acknowledged the realities of short attention spans and whittled those “up close and personal” features on athletes’ personal lives from three minutes or so back in the 1980s to about 30 seconds today.

“He is a brilliant storyteller and his thumbprints are all over the modern Olympic telecast,” said Richard Burton, professor of sport management in the Falk College of Sport at Syracuse University.

So how will NBC fare without its longtime Olympics captain? Ebersol will retain a role as a “senior adviser” but will have no day-to-day oversight.

NBC executives have used the term “muscle memory” to describe how they’ll approach covering the games.

“At least with London 2012, I think NBC will stick closely to Dick’s past scripts and templates,” Burton said.

NBC’s Bell hinted at a mix of the customary and the new, with some fresh faces – including the newly signed “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest – joining regular on-air steward Bob Costas.

“You’ll see some of the traditional storytelling as we’ve done in the past with Costas and Mary Carillo’s unique take on things,” he said. “You’ll also see some new faces telling those stories in Ryan Seacrest and John McEnroe, who will each bring their own unique sensibility.”

Even so, Bell allowed that Ebersol’s absence would be keenly felt – and that may create a big question mark for NBC’s Olympics coverage beyond London.

“Dick was a once-in-a-lifetime personality,” Bell said. “His DNA runs throughout everybody who works in the Olympics and will for many games to come. It’s going to be different without him in the control room.”

Another Olympic uncertainty? The bottom line.

NBC reported a loss of $223 million on the 2010 Vancouver games, and many experts believe the network could lose millions in London, too. Even so, the company has shelled out $4 billion for the TV rights to Olympics through 2020.

But NBC executives like to talk about the “halo effect” – the burnish that surrounds the Olympics and boosts the network to commanding heights that can’t be tallied up on a profit-and-loss statement.

“Nothing better defines the enormous marketing strength of a media company than the Olympics,” said Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics. “Nothing gathers an audience or pulls more advertising dollars from the marketplace than the Olympics. It’s unparalleled.”

Independent experts agree, even though the time difference between the United Kingdom and the U.S. will be less than ideal for prime-time broadcasts this time around. When it’s 8 p.m. in Los Angeles, it will be 4 a.m. in London – not a favorite racing hour for most athletes. That means many events will either be telecast live at odd times for Americans – or will be on the dreaded tape delay, long after everyone on Twitter has already hashed over the results.

“For London, the delay should not be too bad for the East Coast, but will be more of a factor for the West,” Billings said.

Even so, Billings said the games add up to a win for NBC: “They currently are guaranteed 17 consecutive nights of overwhelming ratings wins. No other network can boast that.”

The network can also use the Olympics to help promote its fall schedule – especially if, as many expect, programmers move up some premieres early to take advantage of the windfall.

As Burton said, “Sport is real estate and the Olympics are oceanfront property with a spectacular view and beach rights.”

And when it comes to the views in London, NBC is itching for the full 360 degrees. Americans are destined to get acquainted with all sorts of semi-familiar faces: American swimmer Ryan Lochte, Jamaican sprinting god Usain Bolt, track star Allyson Felix and hurdler Lolo Jones.

And don’t get us started on the back story of those adorable Olympic mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville.

What? You say you never heard of them? Don’t worry. By the end of NBC’s 2 -week Olympics-palooza, you’ll be an expert.