VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Each morning here at 7:30, inside a compound at the International Broadcasting Center roughly the size of Belarus, NBC Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol gathers a small flock of his key lieutenants to discuss contingency plans and every possible scenario for that day's coverage. Along with everything else on the agenda for the tired executives and producers, Ebserol preaches one mantra:
Protect the primetime show.
"It's no secret: the primetime show is the flagship" said David Neal, the executive vice president of NBC Olympics. "That show has to be protected. That show has to be compelling every night. That is the mother ship, and we have to maintain it as an attractive vehicle no matter what."
And that is where ratings come in because primetime is where the eyes are. NBC has averaged 26 million viewers for the first 10 nights of the Olympics, up 27 percent from Turin. It's 14.5 national rating for primetime (each rating point equals about 1 percent of the 114.9 million US television households) is well ahead of Turin but below Salt Lake and Nagano. The highlights from Vancouver include beating American Idol last Wednesday -- the first time that show had been beaten since May 2004 -- and tripling the audience of Grey's Anatomy the following night.
As part of an avalanche of emails NBC Sports sends journalists daily (my inbox thanks you, NBC), the network passed along a metered market breakdown by time zone. The best ratings are coming in the Mountain Time Zone, followed by the Pacific, Central and Eastern. Milwaukee (22.8), Denver (22.7) and Salt Lake City (22.4) are the three highest rated markets. On Sunday 8.22 million viewers watched USA-Canada hockey game on MSNBC, just behind the network's alltime viewership record (8.23M), which came in Nov. 2008 for its presidential election coverage.
"Things so far have been amazing," said Neal. "This kind of ride that we are on, there has been an insatiable appetite for these Olympics from the American television viewers."
Those upset about NBC's tape-delay strategy -- and they include those who frequent social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook as well as the mainstream media -- have legitimate gripes. In an era of real-time news and Twitter analysis, it seems unfathomable to delay airing live events. Others complain about certain sports being delivered in short-as-Herve Villechaize-packages (such as the men's downhill). NBC's approach to these Games is storytelling, and that trumps all.
The columns above offer fair criticisms, and NBC executives are well aware of the complaints. (For instance, some West Coast viewers were irate about the Czech Republic-Russia men's hockey game not being shown live Sunday morning on NBC: An NBC spokesperson told SI.com, "For the most part, all NBC (daytime, primetime, late night) is tape delayed in Mountain Time and Pacific Time. All cable (CNBC, MSNBC, USA) is live regardless of time zone." Each day NBC Sports communication officials provide its executives with packets on all that has written about the Games. Thus, Bob Costas knows if the Grand Forks Herald is writing about him. So does Ebersol. I asked Neal if the criticism of NBC delaying tape-delaying events was fair or unfair.
"I don't even worry about giving it a rating in my head," Neal said. "We believe in what we are doing here. The amount of time and effort that we put into preparing for the Olympic Games surpasses anything that I've been around. We have the strength in our convictions. We believe in what we are doing. We believe in the way that we present the Olympic Games. And I think the ratings back us up."
In other words, expect the same thing. This is Neal's ninth Olympics, and much of NBC's key staff has enormous institutional knowledge of the Games, as well as an Ebersolian self-belief they are doing things correctly. Things have also broken very well for them in Vancouver. Like Beijing, where NBC rode the long arms of Michael Phelps to ratings victory, the network has been buoyed by a remarkable medals performance by the U.S team, and by the quartet of U.S. athletes (Lindsey Vonn, Apolo Ohno, Shaun White and Shani Davis) the network pushed prior to the Games. "The great appeal of the Olympics for the U.S. television audience is that it's a great global gathering," Neal said. "There is no question that's what makes these sport, which would struggle to normally get a 1.0 rating if you staged then outside of the Olympics, so appealing. The American success is certainly a good thing. Lindsey Vonn is by a wide margin right now is the most searched Olympic athlete."
Neal praised his on-air talent, and mentioned Al Michaels, Bob Costas, Mary Carillo, Tom Hammond, Ted Robinson, Al Trautwig, and newcomer Jonny Moseley by name during his conversation with SI.com. "I think this year our biggest innovation is the lineup of on-air talent, which is stronger than we've ever had before," he said.
One thing Neal reiterated was that NBC does not broadcast the action through a red, white and blue lens. Last Thursday the network was criticized by a Toronto Globe and Mail television writer for over-American-izing the Russia-U.S. battle during the men's figure skating final ("You can take the Americans to Vancouver, but you can't take the American sensibility out of them," wrote John Doyle) and Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times also touched on a similar theme. Criticism of the network's tape-delay strategy and primetime packaging is more than fair, but I'd argue NBC Sports has reduced its jingoism significantly over the past two decades. (The Today Show's over-the-top homerism is another story). The network has an ironclad rule against cheerleading and has production seminars prior to the Games reminding its broadcasters to avoid "we" and "us" and homerism. "I can honestly say you could watch any broadcaster from any country but the United States, and you would regularly hear the commentators saying "our girls," our boys" "we win" and that kind of stuff," said Neal. "You never, ever, hear that here."
Canada's CTV, which most Olympic journalists are watching in Vancouver, presents events live (TSN and Rogers Sportsnet are also art of the Canadian Olympic broadcasting group). Broadcasting its first Olympics in 22 years, CTV has done good work, though it is far more jingoistic than NBC, occasionally to the point of silliness. CTV pays a fraction of the cost that NBC does and has less domestic competition going against it at night. Neal said he considers CTV a partner, not a competitor, and the two networks often share camera positions and athlete profiles.
With seven days of programming left, Neal said he thinks ski cross could emerge as a viewer favorite during NBC's final week of coverage. The women's event airs Tuesday. "It's the only new sport on the program this time around," Neal said. "I've seen it in non-Olympic competitions and I think it has some of the same appeal snowboardcross has. There are many countries that have very good athletes in it so I think the competition will be pretty fierce. It's a very good visual event for television."