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NBC gears up for massive Olympics coverage online

By Bob Fernandez, The Philadelphia Inquirer –

PHILADELPHIA — Gary Zenkel, a former college golfer with a lean frame and nervous energy over the fast-approaching Olympics, calls it “the most ambitious digital-video project ever.”

At the height of this summer’s Olympics in London, NBC will be live-streaming 40 separate sporting events that a user can click and watch online. Both NBC and Comcast say there could be technical glitches and YouTube is lending assistance with a streaming player, but officials seem confident that it can be pulled off. As of last week, there were still details to be worked out.

End-to-end, the 17 days of streamed Olympics competition will make up a major part of more than 5,000 hours of Olympics programming.

The issue for Comcast Corp., NBC’s corporate parent, is whether the streaming will cannibalize NBC’s advertisement-rich prime-time TV spectacle, a fear of former NBC Sports head, the legendary Dick Ebersol. Ebersol resigned last year before Comcast and NBC bid on the next round of Olympics rights.

Zenkel, an Ebersol protege and president of NBC Olympics, says it will not, and NBC points to the fact that it has live-streamed its Sunday Night Football games for four years and the televised game has grown in popularity and viewership. NBC also streamed this year’s Super Bowl.

The summer Olympics have become a cultural event in the United States, Zenkel says, with drama building during the hot July days toward the opening ceremony. Once the games start, Olympics fans could watch the streamed events, chat, Twitter and then “gather around the TV and watch prime time,” Zenkel said.

Only consumers who subscribe to a pay-TV service — telco, cable or satellite — and who authenticate themselves with a password and log on can watch the stream on NBC says it will begin marketing the service in the next couple weeks.

Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and now a consultant, said he did not believe live streaming would bleed NBC’s prime-time viewership by itself. But he said the “cumulative totality” of NBC’s thousands of hours of coverage on linear and cable channels could do so. Olympics will appear not only on the broadcast-TV network, but also on CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo and the NBC Sports Network. There also will be specialty channels and coverage on Telemundo, owned by NBC, and a 3D channel.

NBC was smart to decide to live-stream all the events but not to archive the big events that will appear later that night on NBC prime time, he said. NBC will make those archives available only after they appear on an NBC prime-time broadcast.

“I have always felt that the public is more than happy to come home and have dinner and watch a prime-time show,” Pilson said.

Pilson says criticism of NBC and the Olympics organizers over “tape delays” is mostly driven not by the public, but by TV reporters whose job is to watch TV and who would like to see the live events.

Most people are working at 2 in the afternoon and can’t watch live, Pilson said.

In the warren of hallways and offices on the 15th floor in Rockefeller Center, devoted to NBC Sports, the pace is frenetic in preparation for the Olympics.

There are Olympics scheduling meetings. Researchers are following the final Olympics trials. Zenkel returned a week ago from London, where he reviewed progress on NBC’s 75,000-square-foot broadcast space. NBC expects to have 2,700 employees or freelancers in London and an additional 700 employees in New York. Some events, NBC says, will be called from New York with sports broadcasters watching the competition on TV screens. Among others, Ryan Seacrest will have a role as a correspondent on NBC’s coverage.

NBC has provided some of the TV features that will air during the London games to Brian Roberts, Comcast’s chief executive officer and chairman, and he says they look gorgeous. “All my expectations continue to be exceeded with the team Gary has assembled,” Roberts said.

Roberts and Zenkel spent time together in the aftermath of Ebersol’s resignation and when they traveled in June 2011 to Switzerland, along with a group of other Comcast and NBC executives, to successfully bid on the Olympic rights through 2020.

Having paid more than $1 billion for the rights to broadcast the London games, NBC plans to squeeze every last bit of coverage out of them by airing, broadcasting or streaming 5,535 hours of Olympics on multiple platforms — the equivalent, Olympic sports fans, of 231 days and nights of Olympics.

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