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Established storytelling, new-media outlets for Olympics on NBC

Baltimore's Jim McKay anchored the first American telecast of the Summer Olympics in 1960 from a primitive CBS studio in Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Coverage of the Rome Games totaled 20 hours and cost the network $394,000 in rights fees.

On Friday night, starting with the Opening Ceremonies, NBC Universal will launch what will ultimately total 5,535 hours of Olympics coverage across six network and cable outlets and one live streaming website over 17 days and nights. Among the hosts in London will be Bob Costas, Al Michaels, Dan Patrick and Mary Carillo.The cost of rights to these Games: $1.18 billion.

Even the man in charge of NBC's coverage, executive producer Jim Bell, says the size and scope of the TV production occasionally give him pause. And he points to the media he now oversees as the primary reason for the exponential growth in coverage and for one of the largest challenges he and NBC face.

Thanks to new technology, media operations like Comcast-owned NBC Universal have a wide array of outlets on which to telecast and stream the Games. But even though NBC owns exclusive broadcast rights, new media have made it impossible to control information. Because of the five-hour time difference, no Olympic events will take place in London during prime time in the United States, which means the day's results will already be known when Costas' showcase telecast begins each night.

"We're going to handle that situation in both a traditional way and a new way," Bell said in a telephone interview Wednesday from London. "The old way ... involves classic storytelling techniques in prime time. The new way ... the exciting thing here is that we're streaming everything live."

Bell's team will stream live 5,535 hours — every minute of competition — at rather than try to control or delay results to maximize exclusivity. The wall-to-wall online coverage is a first — and amounts to 71/2 months of 24/7 viewing.

"Tradition is obviously the pillar of the prime-time show," Bell said. "And that involves packaging the prime events that have happened through the day — swimming, gymnastics, track and field and others — at a time when people are available to watch them on the network."

The prime-time storytelling techniques include about 50 profiles produced during the past two years by NBC Sports, in the tradition of the late Roone Arledge and Dick Ebersol, former head of NBC Sports.

Bell, 45, replaces Ebersol, who resigned last year as chairman of the NBC Sports Group. This is his first time in charge of NBC's coverage of the Games.

The new-media strategy involves more than "just flipping a switch and putting things online," according to Bell, who also serves as executive producer of NBC's"Today"show.

"It's also about trying to be a little more creative with how we're handling tablets and mobile and the two-screen experience for people so that they can use their iPads, use their hand-held devices and get content, get information, find out more about these competitors or this venue or this town or this coach or team or foreign athlete they are suddenly taking an interest in," he said.

For example, NBC is offering two free apps, NBC Olympics Live Extra and NBC Olympics. The latter will offer athlete profiles, columns and a Primetime Companion feature with information synched to what is being shown on NBC. A social media component will enable viewers to watch and interact with one another through Facebook and Twitter.

The "second screen" components will also work with NBC's sister cable channels: CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo, Telemundo and NBC Sports Network.

But for all that new media, you still need compelling story lines if you hope to attract an audience big enough to warrant the $1.18 billion investment. Pointing first and foremost to Baltimore'sMichael Phelps, Bell says he's got that.

And there is no need for embroidery in telling the story of Phelps' effort to become the most decorated athlete in Olympic history.

"We just sort of have to sit back with a heady mixture of admiration and awe for what he might accomplish here," said Bell, who will be covering his ninth Olympics.

One of the prime chroniclers of this last leg of the Phelps' journey will be Bucky Gunts, Baltimore native and four-time Emmy Award winner for his direction of previous Olympics. In addition to directing NBC's coverage of the Opening Ceremonies, Gunts will be at the helm of NBC's nightly prime-time show throughout the Games.

Like most media stories, in the end, NBC's coverage of the Olympics will in large part be judged in dollars and cents.

Even though NBC Universal said Wednesday that it had reached the $1 billion mark in TV and online advertising sales, the the company will be lucky to break even on a strict money-paid versus ad-dollars-earned accounting. But that doesn't start to measure the many different ways the Olympics can enrich NBC Universal and its affiliates — if it can manage acceptable prime-time ratings in the face of all the other media potentially siphoning off viewers.

Those huge rights fees also buy ratings and a tremendous promotional platform for the network and its affiliates like WBAL, the Hearst-owned station in Baltimore.

"In terms of audience, it's like having a Ravens game every night for 17 straight nights," says Dan Joerres, vice president and general manager of WBAL. "It's a chance to promote our fall lineup, some of our new syndicated shows, our newscasts, our talent and new NBC prime-time series. You have a chance to promote all of that with a huge audience night after night."

WBAL, which lost some ratings ground since Oprah Winfrey left its airwaves, is rearranging its schedule and adding a new nightly program to try to take advantage of the larger audience the Olympics is expected to attract.

Starting Friday, the station will be producing a half-hour nightly show, "WBAL's Olympic Zone." Hosted by Donna Hamilton and Gerry Sandusky, the telecast will offer area viewers 30 minutes of Olympic coverage built around story lines featuring Phelps and the other athletes from Maryland.

The show will air nightly at 7:30 except Friday when it will air at 7 because of the 7:30 start for NBC's coverage of the Opening Ceremonies.

Hearst is also employing Hilary Phelps, one of Michael's sisters, as a "special correspondent" for the Olympics.

"There's a Hearst contingent at the Olympics covering it for all the Hearst-NBC stations like us, and she's part of that reporting for us," Joerres said of Phelps, who runs a lifestyles blog. "Obviously, she's going to have some exclusivity, whether it's with Michael or involves her personal take on things. She'll be reporting back and forth, whether it's online or on television in creating packages for us to put in our newscasts."

Joerres is one affiliate manager who likes Bell's vision for coverage of the Games.

"It's no different than our typical news days where we're on the go, on-air, online constantly updating our mobile platforms and our TV platform," he said.

"But let's just say hypothetically that Michael Phelps gets that third medal he's going after to set the record, and we get that information a couple of hours prior [to prime time] and people can read that online," Joerres said.

"Still, there's nothing like being able to see that moment on television. That's the sweet spot. It's the best of both worlds. People get information when and where they want it. But to see the actual moment of victory, we are the ones who have that in prime time."

Summer Olympics: 1960 telecast vs. today

Location: Rome vs. London

Broadcaster: CBS vs. NBC

Cost of broadcast rights: $394,000 vs. $1.18 billion

Daily coverage: 30 minutes a night on CBS vs. wall-to-wall on NBC Universal's multiple channels and online

Anchor: Jim McKay in New York vs. Bob Costas, Al Michaels, Mary Carillo and Dan Patrick in London

Media: Videotape flown to New York daily to be aired on CBS vs. NBC, sister cable channels, satellite, Internet, social media

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