Hurdler Lolo Jones, right, with Virginia Powell-Crawford, is training… (Karim Jaafar / AFP / Getty…)
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.
FOR THE RECORD:
Lolo Jones: An earlier version of the caption under the photo of hurdlers Lolo Jones and Virginia Powell-Crawford said that Jones would be competing in the London Olympics. She has not qualified yet.
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 protégé 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. While some critics found his approach jingoistic, with coverage heavily slanted toward U.S. athletes and often neglectful of foreignors with equal or greater talent, NBC's successful track record can hardly be disputed.
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 onscreen.
"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% 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."