Every competition will be streamed live online or telecast by NBC and its… (Alastair Grant / Associated…)
NEW YORK — The takeover is complete. Studio 8H, normally the domain of Lorne Michaels' "Saturday Night Live,"has been transformed into the U.S. mission control for NBC's coverage of the Olympics.
The stages and audience seats are covered with tables supporting an endless array of computers. There are a couple rows of black closet-like structures containing small, individual broadcast stations.
To add to the mood for the 700-plus people who will be working in 8H, a sign reads "Downing Street" over one of the walkways, and the Olympic rings loom over the door from which the SNL guest hosts enter.
The "Little London" setup, which will handle many of the network's digital initiatives, is part of NBC's massive entourage (2,800 network credentialed workers) for the Olympics in big London. The main reason for all the staff hangs on one word: Live.
Or as Jim Bell, NBC's executive producer for the Olympics said, "Lots of live."
NBC will deliver 5,535 hours overall through its various platforms. NBC Sports President Mark Lazarus said that's the equivalent of more than seven months of continuous 24/7 programming on one network.
An estimated 3,500 hours of that coverage will be live-streamed on NBCOlympics.com. For the first time, every minute of every competition will be available in real time. It's an all-you-can-watch buffet that includes high profile sports such as swimming, track and field, and gymnastics.
The move marks a dramatic shift in philosophy for NBC. Previously, the network, led by former NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol, took heat for resisting live online coverage of premier Olympic events, fearing it would hurt ratings for the daily prime-time telecasts.
Ebersol's successor, Lazarus, contends with the advances in technology and with the way people consume information, live for 2012 was the only way to go. Unlike the Beijing Olympics in 2008, where NBC was able to show some live events such as swimming in prime-time, that won't be the case for London.
"The decision was made because we think that as times have changed there is a sense to satisfy all the people [using digital devices]," Lazarus said. "The avid fan has that need of immediacy. We are going to satisfy that request."
Gary Zenkel, NBC's president for the Olympics, said at peak times the network will offer as many as 40 concurrent sports via live streaming.
"That means if there are four simultaneous tennis matches at the All England Club, they will be available," Zenkel said.
Like everything else, there are some important caveats to keep in mind. Viewers who want to access the live coverage at NBCOlympics.com will have to verify that they are either cable, satellite or Telco subscribers. The network is using Carson Daly in promos, advising viewers to register in advance of the games. Zenkel estimates nearly 90% of country will be eligible for the live streaming.
Also, don't turn on live streaming of swimming and expect to hear NBC's Dan Hicks, or any of the network's other signature announcers and analysts on the big events. Lazarus said world feed announcers will be used in some cases, and for other events, there might only be graphics without any play-by-play and commentary.
NBC still is saving its best production for the prime-time audience. The network's model hasn't changed for that perspective.
"When we ask people, 'When are you available to watch an event?' The answer is after dinner," Lazarus said. "This has been a successful formula. We shouldn't change what's been successful."
Lazarus believes the vast majority of live-stream viewers still will want tune in later to hear the analysis from NBC's announcing teams. If anything, he said, the prime-time telecasts should receive a boost from people using social media to build excitement for an event.
Indeed, Lazarus said, "We believe this will be the biggest digital event of all time."
During an NBC news conference in New York, Zenkel pulled out an iPad, calling it and smartphones game-changers in Olympic consumption. Zenkel said NBCOlympics.com produced 52 million unique users during the Beijing Olympics. Thanks to the instant access from new technology, that number could be a speed bump in 2012.
Zenkel wouldn't make a prediction, but he said, "The potential traffic is staggeringly high."
Steve Burke, the chief executive and president of NBC Universal, said the network is operating under a super-serve philosophy for these Olympics. He compared all of the different platforms to operating like a "symphony," ultimately drawing viewers to the Games.
"There are traditionalists inside this building, as well as outside of this building, who say, 'Now wait a minute, be careful about cannibalization,'" Burke said. "But, in a really highly fragmented world, I think more is better if they're complementary, and the different venues promote each other and do it the right way."