Is there life after Phelps for these Olympics? NBC thinks so
BEIJING -- Television executives as a rule are an over-caffeinated bunch. They spit out platitudes with machine-gun frequency and sell their content with the same fervor Barnum sold his circus. That's why it's always interesting to check in with NBC Sports and Olympics officials during the second week of an Olympic Games. It's a dog-tired group, gutting out the final days after a month of little sleep. They've read the critics -- the NBC press office onsite gets faxed copies of every major publication daily -- and monitored the ratings with the circumspectness of a jeweler. If the news is good, you'll find smiles through the yawns.
The news is good.
More than 196 million viewers have watched the Beijing Games on the networks of NBC Universal through the first 10 days. The coverage has averaged a 17.2 rating thus far, up 9 percent from Athens in 2004 (15.8). Such numbers have helped bolster the ratings for The Today Show (NBC says it will have its biggest one-week advantage over ABC's Good Morning America since November 2000), Nightly News and all of its cable platforms. The most jaw-dropping statistic: The night Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal was the most viewed Saturday night program (31.1 million) on NBC since 1990. The night peaked at 39.9 million viewers during the 4 X 100 medley relay. NBC promised advertisers a 14.5 primetime rating, according to SportsBusiness Journal's John Ourand. It will get that even with the usual second-week tune-out.
Even with the robust coverage, NBC's coverage has its critics, from accusations of soft-pedaling negative news that would upset its Chinese hosts to not showing coverage live on the West Coast to putting a live box on the screen for tape-delayed coverage on the West Coast.
SI.com checked in with David Neal, the executive producer of NBC Sports and Olympics and the producer of the network's primetime coverage. Neal has been to China 18 times since NBC paid $894 million in 2001 for the rights to host the Games. He said he had slept an average of five hours a night (despite the fatigue, he was dressed nattily in a USC football pullover, chino shorts and boat shoes) since arriving in China last month.
Below, Neal addressed a number of topics as the Games entered its final week:
On why the Olympics have been communal viewing:
I think Dick Ebersol [NBC Universal Sports and Olympics Chairman] really captured it when he spoke to the television critics before the Games. He talked about a confluence of factors: The economy is certainly struggling a bit, gas prices are high, and we are not traveling as much. Let's face it: This is free over the air television and a big event on free over-the-air television so I think it just happens to be the right event at the right time with a star who is a phenomenon that you could argue comes around maybe every 50 or 100 years. The planets are aligned.
On Michael Phelps as a record television draw:
For whatever reason there are certain athletes who become more than just an athlete. There is something about Michael, his story, his fabulous relationship with his mother and sisters. And there is nothing about Michael that is not right out there in front. He is a very open, confident young man and I think those of us who have gotten to know him are just taken by this guy. He's just a good kid but he goes beyond that. He's a great young man who happens to have enormous athletic gifts.
On a sport that could emerge in the final week?
I think the U.S. women's softball team will capture people's attention the second week. It is a team that threw back-to-back no-hitters in the Olympics. It is a compelling story with a great group of athletes. They are in this sort of trag-drama with their sport because, through no fault of their own, they are playing their swan song for the foreseeable future. They don't have a home in the Olympics after these Games.
On playing up the U.S. versus China storyline:
I don't think we have been playing up U.S. versus China. I think China the country is a natural member of the cast of characters. If you want to say this is an ongoing miniseries here for 17 nights, well, one of the stars would be China. Americans have a natural curiousity about this rising power and this has become part of the nightly story.
On how important was it for NBC to get Olympic officials to schedule swimming finals in the morning:
This was an enormous win for the American public. It has fueled these historic numbers. You can't overstate how important this was and certainly I think it was a justified decision and a rational one.
On the contention that the network made too little mention of the stabbing death of a relative of the U.S. men's volleyball team, Tibet, scalping and other sensitive issues:
We have been clear from the moment this was ever discussed over a year ago. Dick said it. I said it. Others have said it. NBC Sports and NBC Olympics is here to cover the Olympic Games. Anything that happens within a sports venue or anything that affects the athletes or competition we will cover and have covered thoroughly. NBC News is also here in force. They are the country's premier newsgathering organization and they have been vigorous in their reporting with the tragic story of the stabbing of the family of the volleyball coach. I think it is a perception versus reality issue. The reality is we are covering the Olympic Games in the fashion we said we would all along. And NBC News is here being NBC News.
On criticism about putting a "LIVE" box in the upper right corner of the screen on the West Coast for events that have already taken place:
This is a curious one. American Idol is probably the best example. This is common practice. The Today Show when they have a live exclusive puts up a graphic that's says LIVE in the Eastern time zone. From the first night we have been doing this, we said we were live and then scrolled beneath was the exact time. Not just live Eastern Time or Central Time but live 8:15 Eastern Time or 7:15 Central Time. So I think it is odd that this is a fixation for some in the media. This is nothing new. I would argue we are being as forthcoming if not more so than other similar primetime television shows.
On what he is most proud of about the coverage:
I'm proud of the coverage led by Tommy Roy (the executive producer for golf for NBC Sports) and Drew Esocoff (who directs Sunday Night Football). Those two led coverage of a historic event (swimming). Think about the stuff that these guys have captured over the last days; people will be watching for the next 40 to 50 years. Here's an anecdote: Even at a big venue like that [Water Cube], where we have 15 of our own cameras, you also take splits of the world feed. The world feed controls the underwater camera. So in the last race for Michael, the last race of the competition, Michael is swimming the next to last leg. The cutting pattern for us had been to bring someone into the wall on a high camera and then cut low to the underwater camera. Drew had the presence of mind when it was time for Phelps to swim the third leg, he looked at that camera of the host feed and saw the operator got mixed up. Instead of going in the direction Michael was about to swim, it went the wrong way. So the rest of the world, even for two seconds, had the camera going into the wall. But because Drew Esocoff was directing that last race, he did what an excellent director does: He looked at the shot before he took it. And NBC had coverage that did not have a mistake in it. The rest of the world had the mistake.
On what these Games say about the relevancy of the Olympics as a television property:
I think the true measure of what has been captured is the ability to provide water-cooler conversation again. My wife is back in New York and when she goes to work in her office, people are talking about Phelps or the gymnastics or things they have seen in primetime. It's that kind of pop culture traction that these Olympics have achieved.
On future Games being seen on the web and additional platforms:
One of the things we saw from Athens, after we made the decision we would be on 24-7 with cable and cover every gold medal final from every sport, was that our researchers said there was a funnel effect. Rather than cannibalizing our primetime coverage, it really had the opposite effect. People who were watching MSNBC or USA Network, something like 80-plus percent of the people also went on to watch primetime on the network. If you stretch the metaphor, we have just made the funnel effect bigger, capturing more people on a more diverse range of platforms. It is the future.
On the contention that the second half of the Games does not have a primetime star now that Phelps has left the building:
There is no question that Michael is the star of stars in the Olympic world right now. That would be like saying when the NBA season ended 10 years ago, the NBA didn't have someone to replace Michael Jordan. But the Games themselves are vibrant and still appealing and we still have a couple of nights to go. I think there are plenty of compelling storylines yet to see.