The high TV ratings for the Salt Lake City Games will have a lasting effect on NBC's coverage of the next three Olympics.
The biggest shifts: fewer prime-time hours, fewer features, and more live action on cable, including new acquisition Telemundo.
"We're evolving a strategy now where we're going to look very hard at making a lot of the (coverage) as live as possible," NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said Sunday, a few hours before the closing ceremony in Salt Lake City.
About 50 percent of the competition shown on NBC's evening broadcasts has been live for most of the country, although the entire West Coast feed has been on a 2 1/2 -hour delay most nights.
Through Saturday, the average prime-time rating was 19.0, which is 15 percent higher than for the 1998 Nagano Olympics on CBS (the lowest-rated Winter Games since '68) and 36 percent higher than for the 2000 Sydney Olympics on NBC.
NBC won every hour of prime time during Salt Lake City, which got off to a good start with the highest-rated Olympic opening ceremony in history. On cable, CNBC almost tripled and MSNBC more than quadrupled their average audiences.
Most importantly, the NBC prime-time ratings were higher than advertisers were told to expect. In the last two Olympics, lower-than-promised viewership forced NBC and CBS to air extra ads.
Indeed, NBC sold $20 million worth of commercial time during these Olympics, raising the total to $740 million, NBC president Randy Falco said. That put the network's profit from Salt Lake City at about $75 million.
NBC is paying $3.55 billion for the U.S. TV rights to the 2000-08 Olympics. Ebersol said he expects the IOC to pick a broadcaster for the 2010 Games in the spring of 2003.
Within a few months after the 2000 Olympics, NBC developed "a plan to do these games differently," Ebersol said.
"We planned to evolve the way we do the games to a more event-driven series of telecasts," he added. "We just had to find a way to have announcers deliver much of the storytelling through their commentary rather than feature material."
That change in philosophy helped draw and keep viewers this time, Ebersol said, as did trimming the prime-time shows from Sydney's five hours to Salt Lake City's 3 1/2 hours.
Other factors that he acknowledged helped increase the audience were that the Olympics were in the United States, the U.S. team's record medal haul, and "post-Sept. 11, the way the country felt about itself."
NBC's prime-time shows from Athens in two years will be "in the 4 1/2 -hour range," Ebersol said. The plan is to have live coverage from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time on MSNBC, and there could also be live soccer and baseball coverage on Telemundo, a Spanish language channel purchased by NBC last year.
"My hope is that we'll have at least a midday or midafternoon show live from Athens on NBC," Ebersol said. "The prime-time show - there's nothing we can do about that, because of the 7-hour time difference from Athens."
The next Winter Olympics, in Turin, Italy, in 2006 will probably have cable coverage similar to Salt Lake City's CNBC and MSNBC combination.
While generally enthusiastic about his network's shows, Ebersol acknowledged that the coverage at the conclusion of the women's figure skating long program wasn't up to par.
"We could have been better on Thursday night at the end," he said. "It had been so well planned to capture whatever joy and emotion there would be, we all perhaps got too caught up in it," he said.
"We should have pointed out how the scoring worked, pointed out sooner the silver and bronze winners. Unquestionably, we could have been better."
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