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STEVE SPRINGER / ON SPORTS MEDIA

Opening night led to a big hit

August 24, 2008|STEVE SPRINGER

Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.

Confucius

It has been 2,500 years since the Chinese philosopher spoke those words, but they still rang true in Beijing 17 days ago for concerned NBC executives.

Good luck in finding one now not sporting a wide smile as the most widely viewed Olympics ever comes to a conclusion.

When the Games began, however, NBC was potentially looking at more hurdles than decathlon champion Bryan Clay.

Would the smog-thick Beijing air choke the athletes? Would the Chinese government gag the free flow of information from journalists? Would American audiences buy into watching events that were sometimes hours old by the time they were shown, especially in the Pacific time zone where just about the only thing live was the local news? Would the easy access to Internet sites with instant results dilute the audience?

Then, the lights went on at the Bird's Nest stadium, a rousing opening ceremony began and all the question marks began to fade into the fireworks-laden skies.

"The opening ceremonies created an initial buzz and enormous interest," NBC executive Alan Wurtzel said from Beijing. "People were still talking about it the day after, and that's when they began to get hooked."

And hooked they remained, captivated by Michael Phelps' record-breaking performance in the pool, the star power of the U.S. men's basketball team, the controversial gymnastics competition and the appealing stories of Usain Bolt, Dara Torres and Clay. Rain helped clear the skies; drug violations, which had put a damper on previous Olympics, were rare and Chinese government officials generally stayed in the background.

The old record for total viewing audience was 208.9 million viewers for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, an event that had the advantages of being on home soil and offering more viewer-friendly broadcast times.

"That was the gold standard," Wurtzel said.

The Beijing Olympics blew past Atlanta sometime Saturday in total viewing audience and will, with tonight's closing ceremony yet to come, set an impressive new standard.

"This was accomplished in an environment where there is a continually eroding universe with viewers having the option of up to 500 channels," Wurtzel said. "The power of network television remains extraordinary."

NBC took advantage of those various options, using a record eight channels to attract audiences.

As for the howls of protest from Pacific time zone viewers about the frustration of tape-delayed broadcasts and scheduling that sometimes ran past midnight, Wurtzel pointed to the scoreboard. The numbers, he said, were proof West Coast viewers weren't turned off enough to turn off their sets.

NBC already has the rights to the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada, and 2012 in London, but, in less than a year, negotiations will begin for the 2014 and 2016 Olympics. ABC/ESPN and Fox Sports say they will be active in the bidding. It's a given that NBC will be back to try to maintain its grip on the Olympic rings. CBS appears to be the lone holdout among the networks.

All three bidders are expected to place even greater emphasis on a multi-tiered approach with still more dependence on computer and mobile-device presentations.

Confucius was wrong. The time is coming when everybody can see everything. But then, he never saw the Internet.

--

steve.springer@latimes.com

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