HOUSTON — David Neal, NBC's head of production for the Sydney Olympics, was visiting with a group of reporters here not long ago when talk turned to whether the network's planned 437-1/2 hours of coverage might be too much. Conceded Neal, "The appetite will be tested."
Far to the north at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Olympic expert Jeff Segrave agrees: "It strikes me as a heck of a lot." But Segrave, an exercise science professor and co-author of "The Olympic Games in Transition" and "Olympism," goes on to suggest, "As much as it may seem too much, it's probably not."
Such is the Olympic paradox: The coverage is always too much and never enough. It depends solely on an individual viewer's sensibilities. Says NBC's Neal, "There's no way we're going to please everybody, but we're trying to."
At the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington-based think tank, media director Matthew Felling says the 437-1/2 hours is "digestible" because "the biggest gripe that most people have after the Olympics have concluded is that they didn't get enough of what they were interested in. That complaint will be stifled."
The problem heretofore has been that while a Scripps Howard News Service-Ohio University poll several years ago showed the favorite Olympic sport is track and field, followed by swimming, gymnastics, and basketball, those sports are not the favorites of all viewers.
But it's difficult to imagine that NBC, which generally got low marks for its handling of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics - and its 171-1/2 hours of coverage - will be criticized for lack of coverage of the 35 sports this time.
In addition to the traditional approach, with major events of the day being showcased on NBC, the network will have extensive coverage on its cable partners, MSNBC and CNBC. Some 273 hours of the Olympic blitz will appear on cable, including 30 gold-medal events, the first time the Summer Games have ever been on widely available basic cable.
The plans are innovative. On weekdays during the games, MSNBC will air "Scholastic at the Olympic Games." Scholastic Inc. is a global children's publishing and media company. The idea is to reach children through sports, such as soccer, softball, table tennis, and volleyball. NBC, showing it is serious about this endeavor, will air the women's soccer gold-medal game on MSNBC the afternoon of Sept. 28 to ensure youngsters can watch. At Scholastic, veep Hugh Roome says, "The Olympics is rich with themes for teaching important values, like sportsmanship, responsibility, commitment, and team-building."
CNBC's main niche will be boxing, Neal says, which surveys show "men like and women don't." That's a nice fit since CNBC has a heavily male audience for its stock-market programming.
Then there's the Web site www.nbcolympics.com, which gives new meaning to comprehensive. Neal explains that people with casual interest in, say, softball will get enough on NBC, those who want the entire game will go to MSNBC, those who want everything, including technical details and pitch count, will go to www.nbcolympics.com.
NBC is borderline desperate to please everybody because it paid $705 million for the honor and opportunity of airing the Games; the same network paid just $456 million for the Atlanta Games. The network lately has been selling 30 seconds of commercial time for the event (coverage begins Sept. 13 and ends 18 days later, on Oct. 1) for $600,000. Still, turning a profit is essentially impossible.
Thus, the Olympic paradoxes continue. The Olympics are a huge draw - in the book, "Sports For Sale: Television, Money, and the Fans," authors David Klatell and Norman Marcus write, "The phenomenal and almost hypnotizing lure of Olympic television is nowhere so strong as in this country" - but the telecasts struggle financially. That, of course, is perfectly fine with NBC, which has paid more than $3.5 billion to air five summer Games through 2008. (Some perspective: In 1960, CBS paid $394,000 for rights to the Rome Olympics.)
Explains Olympics expert Segrave, "To have the Olympics makes the network the leader in sports" and presumably by extension, "the leader in everything else." What happens is the network uses the Games as a vehicle for promoting itself and its other programs. And, happily for NBC, the viewing audience is huge and diverse. NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol points to the "amazing ability [of the Olympics] to put the whole family in front of the television together." Worldwide viewership at the Sydney Games is expected to peak at 4 billion.
Truth is, normal rules of life and finances don't apply to the Olympics. In "Sports For Sale," it is pointed out that "the networks have allowed the Olympics to become so emotional an issue, so much a matter of pride and self-importance, that they no longer measure it by any reasonable business standard normally applied to programming decisions."
It is simply a "global extravaganza," says Segrave, a kind of "ongoing soap opera with national-identity issues."
Perhaps most amazing is that in this country, the entire games will be on tape, owing to the 14-to-17-hour time difference between Australia and the US. Media analyst Felling says there's no question "this will cost any broadcast valuable points." But television has proved itself the master, Segrave says, of "creating drama even though results might be known." It is akin to seeing the movie "Titanic" - compelling even though the outcome is known.
Perhaps most cheering to NBC is that Americans love TV. Two years ago, A.C. Nielsen Co. said Americans watch almost four hours of television a day, and 49 percent say they watch too much. Since the Olympics are a made-for-TV event, this is very good news for folks in the business.
Neal pauses, thinking about the enormity of the task. Then he smiles: "It will be interesting to see the results."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society