The Olympics made a quantum leap in 1960 when CBS crews flew tapes of the Rome Games back to New York to be broadcast. The network coverage included only a few hours from each day's competitions, yet dramatically changed the way Americans interacted with the Olympics.
That's pretty much the way things remained, with network executives deciding what viewers would see. But NBC hopes that is about to change.
With the Beijing Games, NBC Universal is offering more Olympic events on more media platforms and implementing an unprecedented tracking system to record what is watched and when -- whether it's a record-breaking run or swim and whether it's on TV, online, Video on Demand or a mobile device.
The $800-million question for the company is whether its new media juggernaut will produce a corresponding leap in audience numbers beginning Aug. 8.
"Beijing will go down as the first Games in which digital technology was a major player," said Steve Sternberg, an executive vice president with Magna Global, a New York-based media services firm. "It will also go a long way in determining how others use it in the near-term future."
Sports fans have been eager consumers of digital technology, making such websites as Yahoo Sports and ESPN among the Internet's most popular destinations. Even so, media companies and advertisers seeking to attract large audiences will be watching carefully as NBC digitizes what has long been an analog Games.
Past NBC Olympics coverage was "always the Dick Ebersol Olympics," NBC research guru Alan Wurtzel said, in a reference to the longtime NBC Universal Sports chairman. "He made the decisions as to what people would see or not.
"But now we're at the tipping point. You can program your own Olympics experience on television, cable, the Internet and ancillary things."
NBC's programming barrage will dwarf the 1996 Atlanta Games and its then-stunning 171 broadcast hours. When the Beijing Games end Aug. 24, NBC Universal will have beamed and streamed 3,600 hours of programming.
This time, viewers will be able to watch what they want, when they want.
The stakes are high for the network as it tries to lure busy, finicky Americans to its Olympic fare -- as well as assemble demographic data that may help convince sponsors that advertising is resonating across all the platforms.
Television will still make up the lion's share of the 200 million-plus "customers" NBC expects to track. But the time zone challenge Beijing brings could be as tough a hurdle as the time zone challenge of the 2000 Sydney Games. Sydney is 17 hours ahead of Los Angeles; Beijing is 15 hours ahead.
Prime-time ratings for the 2004 Athens Games increased 9% as an estimated 203 million Americans watched.
And, if NBC's live coverage of the Olympic track and field trials on June 29 is any example, the road to Beijing could be even bumpier. NBC's coverage of sprinter Tyson Gay running the 100 meters faster than anyone ever has barely edged out a rerun of the "Wipeout" reality show on ABC.
Measuring the Olympic audience, however, needs to go beyond TV ratings now.
In anticipation of that, NBC has created TAMI -- the Total Audience Measurement Index -- to better understand how viewers are consuming Olympic content. The system, which Wurtzel has spent the last year assembling, will use technology and old-fashioned focus groups to closely monitor this.
For example, Wurtzel will be able to tell with greater certainty whether viewers are surfing the Web in search of Olympic content. He will be able to determine whether live alerts delivered via cellphones drive fans to television sets or computer screens to catch a record-breaking performance. And he will see how fans use online and VOD replays.
The system also will attempt for the first time to track Olympic watching outside the home via mobile devices created by San Mateo, Calif.-based Integrated Media Measurement Inc. A limited number of people will have the cellphone-like devices designed to monitor every bit of media consumed -- whether in a bar, a movie theater or someone else's house.
NBC Universal also is assembling focus groups to find out how consumers are interacting with what Wurtzel described as "the first 360-degrees Olympics."
Sternberg, the advertising industry executive, suspects that many sports marketing executives and sports leagues with media rights to sell will be paying as much attention to TAMI as the Games.
Kevin Burke, head of global consumer marketing for sponsor Visa, expressed confidence the Beijing Games will hit its demographic numbers.
"Buzz is starting to build," Burke said, thanks to the parade of U.S. Olympic hopefuls who have been setting records. And that, he added, has put NBC and Olympic sponsors "right where we want to be."