Every sport, every single competition will be streamed live online or telecast by NBC and its affiliated cable networks in the U.S. this summer — starting with the Great Britain vs. New Zealand women's soccer game on July 25, two days before the opening ceremony.
It will be the most visible change for NBC in its first Olympics coverage since 1992 not run by veteran television executive Dick Ebersol. Ebersol, executive producer of eight winter and summer Olympic telecasts for NBC, quit as head of NBC Sports in May 2011. He will still be in London working for NBC as a consultant.
On television and online, NBC will offer 5,535 hours of Olympics coverage. The NBC broadcast network itself will have 272 hours, including the flagship prime-time telecast that will amount to a "greatest hits" of each day's competition.
Ebersol's successor as NBC Sports Group chairman, Mark Lazarus, ordered the live streaming during his first Olympics planning meeting after taking the new job.
"I said, 'This is what I believe. Convince me that we should not be doing it,'" Lazarus recalled. "Nobody convinced me."
NBC offered streams of several events from the 2008 Beijing Games, but would not present any of the showcase competitions that it was taping for later broadcast in prime time. The concern was that fans who saw the events live online wouldn't bother watching NBC that night, depressing ratings for the broadcast that mattered most.
In Beijing, however, some marquee events such as swimming were held in the morning in China so they could be televised live in prime time in the United States. In London, the time difference won't allow for that option.
Lazarus believes that many people who watch an event online will be interested in seeing how NBC handles it later. Fans watching live streams are also expected to use social media, building anticipation for the broadcast.
Any people who don't want to watch on NBC what they've seen online will be more than offset by extra viewers drawn in by the excitement, Lazarus said.
Fans who want to see the streams on NBCOlympics.com will have to verify that they are paying cable or satellite subscribers. NBC says that's necessary to protect these businesses since they pay a premium to air the NBC cable stations because of the Olympics. While most live streams will be archived, reruns of high-profile events that are going to be shown on the network will not be available until after the West Coast broadcast.
There will be times that NBC's Olympics website is showing as many as 40 separate competitions at the same time, said Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics.
The decision could neutralize what has always been a major criticism of NBC — that showing some events only on a tape-delay basis makes them feel stale, particularly in an era of instant communication. It might keep viewers from fleeing NBC, since some frustrated fans had sought out live telecasts from other television or Internet sources, said Andrew Billings, a sports media professor at the University of Alabama and author of "Olympic Media: Inside the Biggest Show on Television."
"They realize it has to go in this direction," Billings said. "Some people say they are four to eight years late in this game."
The time difference — it will be 1 a.m. in London when NBC's prime-time broadcast begins on the East Coast, 4 a.m. for the West Coast show — means no events will be offered live on the telecast most people watch.
Ebersol might no longer be in the control room, but NBC will keep his template. Under his direction, the prime-time broadcast began concentrating on four major competitions: swimming, diving, gymnastics and track and field. Later, beach volleyball was added. Those sports accounted for 93 percent of the prime-time coverage in Beijing, Billings said.
The idea is they are the best for the bite-sized competition and personal stories that attract female viewers. If the audience is dominated by male sports fans, as opposed to families, then it's a losing proposition for NBC.
"We'll try to have a little more variety," said Jim Bell, executive producer of the Olympics telecasts, "but for the most part there are some tried and true sports that we know people love to watch."
Bell's experience producing four hours of live television each day at the "Today" show was key to his selection replacing Ebersol in the control room, Lazarus said. Bell also has an Olympics pedigree: His first NBC job out of college was pushing the wheelchair of a temporarily disabled NBC executive around Barcelona for meetings two years before the 1992 Olympics there.
"Today" might be one of the best jobs to teach a TV executive the need to meticulously plan for a broadcast, yet also understand when the situation calls for throwing those plans out the window.
NBC Olympics executives, most of whom owe Ebersol for their jobs, see no reason to change what's been a successful formula. As a consultant, Ebersol is offering frequent advice to Lazarus, Zenkel and Bell and will be in London.
"They found a formula and I'd be stunned if they moved away from it too much," Billings said.
Since its acquisition by Comcast Corp., NBC Universal has renamed the Versus cable channel the NBC Sports Network, and it will take much of the Olympics programming that in recent games has been seen on USA. A successful entertainment network, USA will stick with entertainment.
The NBC Sports Network will average 14 hours a day of coverage, focusing on team sports like the U.S. men's basketball team's pursuit of gold.
CNBC, as it has in the past, will air boxing when the financial markets are closed. Bravo will telecast tennis. MSNBC is turning its daytime hours over to the Olympics, airing 20 sports from badminton to wrestling. The Spanish-language Telemundo, heavy on soccer and boxing in past games, will offer more hours of Olympics coverage and show a greater variety of sports.
Despite the hours and attention, Lazarus anticipates that the games will not be profitable for NBC. The Olympics under Ebersol made money until 2010, when the Vancouver Winter Games lost an estimated $223 million.
The network paid $1.18 billion for the rights to telecast the London Olympics, but Lazarus said that isn't driving the main cost concerns.
"The cost of doing business in London was more than anybody anticipated," he said. "We will have 2,700 people there. That comes with a price."
The value of the games can't be measured simply by looking at the costs and profits of the competition, he said. It's expected the Olympics will provide a boost for the "Today" show, "NBC Nightly News" and Jimmy Fallon's late-night broadcast, as well as publicize the network's fall offerings, he said.
With NBC's prime-time lineup on a long, slow slide toward irrelevancy, there's value to the brand in being the center of television for a couple of weeks.
"We will look at it certainly as a success," Lazarus said, "assuming we don't fall off a cliff."