Mark Lazarus stepped in as NBC Sports Group's top executive after… (Frederick M. Brown / Getty…)
Mark Lazarus is an affable man, but he seems to prefer to be in the background.
The Olympics, though, will thrust him squarely into the intense spotlight created, in part, by his predecessor, Dick Ebersol.
Lazarus, 48, takes control when NBC begins its massive coverage of the Summer Olympics next week. When Ebersol resigned suddenly in a contract dispute in May 2011, Lazarus stepped in as chairman of the NBC Sports Group; Ebersol will be on hand as a consultant in London.
Lazarus joins a select group. With a couple of exceptions (yes, CBS actually tabbed Tim McCarver to be a co-host for the '92 Winter Games), Olympic television coverage in the U.S. has been guided by two men: Roone Arledge and Ebersol.
Arledge designed the up-close-and-personal template of getting Americans to develop a bond with the athletes during his Olympic TV days at ABC. His protege, Ebersol, refined the approach to accommodate a seemingly endless amount of coverage during nine Olympics for NBC.
Lazarus now is charged with shepherding 5,535 hours of coverage across NBC's multiple platforms. He ultimately will be held responsible for producing ratings and, just as important, critical acclaim for the network's $1.18-billion investment in these Games.
Indeed, it is a daunting, if not overwhelming task. During a recent news conference in New York, which included his boss, Steve Burke, the chief executive of NBC Universal, Lazarus seemed taken aback when asked about the potential for his Olympics legacy. NBC now has the rights for the Summer and Winter Games through 2020.
"I don't think you can create a legacy with one Games," Lazarus said. "So my strong preference is to be invited back to do the next one."
Unlike Ebersol, who had an extensive production background, Lazarus worked his way up through the business side of the industry. He was president of Turner Entertainment Group before moving over to NBC.
So Lazarus won't be literally calling every shot as Ebersol did; he doubled as executive producer during his Olympics run. Lazarus will consult with Ebersol, who uncharacteristically is keeping a low profile, denying media requests for interviews.
"My job is to help steward this enormous, talented team to help make judgments and decisions on where we're going to air product and how we're going to air product," Lazarus said.
Lazarus did register a big first impression with his decision to make everything — with the exception of the opening and closing ceremonies — available live on NBCOlympics.com. Previously, Ebersol had resisted real-time digital coverage for the marquee sports such as track, swimming and gymnastics, preferring to save it all for the network's prime-time telecasts.
However, when it comes to content, Lazarus isn't looking to reinvent the Olympic wheel. Indeed, virtually every main cog of the NBC machine in London, from executive producer Jim Bell to host Bob Costas, was nurtured under Ebersol.
"What did I learn from Dick?" Bell said. "Oh, let's see. Only everything."
Ebersol taught Bell pacing ("keep it moving"), the importance of planning down to the minute for the prime-time telecast, and how to change those plans when the unexpected occurs.
At the core, carrying the link back to Arledge, is storytelling, Bell said.
The Olympics don't deliver a typical sports audience. According to its surveys, NBC says 69 million people who tuned into the Beijing Olympics in 2008 never watched an NFL game that season. Typically, women make up more than half the viewership for an Olympics.
"Storytelling is the guiding principle of Olympic coverage," Bell said. "You're talking about sports that most people don't follow. So it is important to personalize those athletes."
Ultimately, regardless of all the planning, NBC needs good, compelling stories from the competition. NBC's rating rose as swimmer Michael Phelps continued his bid for eight gold medals in 2008. NBC could use similar story lines in 2012.
"By one-hundredth of a second or less, in the second of eight gold-medal races, if Michael Phelps takes silver there, his teammates take silver in a relay race, then the whole story line changes," Costas said. "And that undoubtedly diminishes the rating."
Thanks to creative scheduling in Beijing, NBC was able to air swimming and other events live in prime time. That won't be the case in London, eight hours ahead of Los Angeles.
Without live coverage in prime time, Lazarus said, ratings for this year's Olympics probably will be lower than 2008. And even with the massive amount of commercials, NBC still expects to lose money on the Games, he said.
Lazarus will ultimately be held accountable from all angles. Typically, he tried to downplay his role.
"I don't have an individual goal on the mark I want to leave on the Games," Lazarus said. "I think that we want to come out of this with a sense that the viewing population of America says, 'That was a fun two weeks; I can't wait to do it again.'"
Yet Lazarus knows — everyone knows — what is at stake for him as head of his first Olympics. If things go awry, Costas, noting that the 2014 Winter Games are in a remote part of Russia, warned Lazarus of the consequences.
"You're going to Sochi, if only as punishment," Costas said.