SBJ/Feb. 17-23, 2014/Olympics

‘New guard’ creates new feel with NBC

Shortly after 4 p.m. last Wednesday, NBC Sports Group’s top executives gathered in a makeshift conference room within NBC’s massive Sochi compound.

There was nothing remarkable about the meeting — it was similar to production meetings the group holds all 18 days of the Games.

But the half-hour “whiteboard meeting” — where NBC executives of all stripes weigh in on that night’s prime-time show — reflected a more collaborative environment at the network and illustrated how different NBC’s Olympic operation in Sochi is from past Games it produced under the eye of the network’s longtime Olympics producer Dick Ebersol.

Six members of NBC’s production and executive team ringed four tables pushed together at the center of the room. Executive producer Jim Bell, who led the meeting, grabbed a sheet off the table and uncapped a blue marker. He scanned the sheet and began scribbling on the board, humming as he filled in slots numbered 1 to 22.

“Do you want Russian pairs or Shani?” Bell asked the group about a specific afternoon slot on NBC. The choice was between a profile of a Russian pairs figure skating team or a profile of U.S. speedskater Shani Davis.

Joe Gesue, NBC senior vice president of production, pushed for the Russian figure skating profile to be shown, believing it would be the best way to tease NBC’s prime-time programming block, which was slated to show the figure skating competition.

LAZARUS
But NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus, standing behind the conference table, objected. He was OK with the tease, but he wanted to be sure that the figure skating competition wouldn’t air on NBC before prime time.

“I’ve got an affiliate concern,” Lazarus said. NBC affiliates could be angry if the network showed clips of the figure skating competition before prime time. Showing the competition live on cable was fine; broadcast was not.

Bell understood and nodded.

These are the Games of Lazarus and Bell. There was no doubt that they were the ones in charge, with Bell focused on production and Lazarus on business. Tasked with replacing the legendary Ebersol as the Olympics’ producer for the London Games in 2012, they have developed a collaborative style that permeates NBC’s entire Olympic operation.

SBJ Podcast:
From Sochi: SBJ Olympics writer Tripp Mickle and Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch assess the first week of the Sochi Games and NBC's performance.

Ebersol attended the London Olympics, spending his days in the NBC compound and participating in these types of production meetings. For Sochi, he is half a world away, staying in Hawaii as NBC produces the Games.

Home base in Stamford, Conn., handles the
digital effort behind the production in Sochi.
Photos by: NBC
The differences can be seen everywhere: whiteboard meetings that include both business and production executives; live daytime telecasts of figure skating on a cable channel; the streaming of every single winter competition.

NBC’s Olympic strategy in Sochi presents a microcosm of the direction the network plans to take with the Olympics in the coming years.

“There’s definite confidence in our strategy,” Lazarus said, shortly after the meeting. “There’s a sense we know what we’re doing,
and we’re going to keep doing it.”

■ ■ ■

The London Games were Lazarus’ first. From the start of them, he was under fire. There was criticism of the quality of NBC’s live streaming. There were complaints about the network’s tape-delay coverage. There was an entire social media movement: #NBCfails.

Through the first week of the Sochi Games, things have run much smoother. Before the Games even started, Lazarus addressed NBC’s tape-delay, prime-time strategy with the press. He decided to put figure skating live on NBC Sports Network for the first time — potentially hurting the broadcast network’s prime-time ratings. And the quality of its video streaming online has been much better than it was in London.

“We have a calmness,” Lazarus said. “We believed coming in that our plan would work. We’re more at ease.”

The team around Lazarus, who oversees the business, and Bell, who oversees the Olympics production, has changed. Not only is Ebersol absent. So is Bucky Gunts, who directed prime-time Olympic broadcasts, and Molly Solomon, a longtime Olympics producer.

In their place are longtime NBC employees who grew up in the Ebersol school of the Olympics but now are operating under the new regime. There’s Gesue, who is the production department’s second in command to Bell; coordinating producer Becky Chatman, a newcomer; prime-time director Mike Sheehan, who is new to his role; senior vice president of production Mark Levy; producer Brian Orentreich; and NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel.

“There’s a new guard,” Lazarus said. “Sitting in that control room is very different from the control room in London. Not better. Not worse. Just different. I feel very confident in that team.”

■ ■ ■

Different is also a word NBC’s digital executives are using for these Olympics.

It’s not just about NBC’s digital offerings (every event is being streamed live) or traffic numbers (digital growth is up 54 percent from Vancouver, NBC executives said last week).

Rather, NBC’s digital executives have been given the mandate to have more fun. It’s a different mindset that highlights viral videos alongside live streamed events.

“In the past, sometimes we’ve been accused of missing the quirky, cool stuff about the Olympics and being straight laced and focusing on the competition,” said Tom Seeley, vice president of editorial for NBCSports.com and NBCOlympics.com.

As an example, Seeley pointed to video of Shiva Keshavan, an Indian luge athlete who crashed during a training run on Feb. 7 and managed to get back on his sled to complete his race. The video went viral and brought a lot of traffic to NBCOlympics.com.

“We really wanted to make sure that we got that clip out there and make sure that folks knew that we had it, and if you wanted to see it, this was the place to go,” said Seeley, who is working his fourth Olympics. “We want to make sure that we’re feeding into what folks are looking for on the Web. They don’t have to go find a second-rate version of it. We have the video, and we will make it available to the most folks possible, not try to pretend that’s something we wouldn’t touch because it was something that isn’t part of our high-brow coverage.”

Seeley and a group of about 400 NBC Digital employees are working out of NBC’s new offices in Stamford, Conn. He credits the fact that the entire team is working under one roof for the first time with helping NBC take ownership of these types of viral clips.

A group of 75 people make up what’s called a Highlights Factory, tasked with watching every piece of Olympics coverage and identifying key moments. When Keshavan’s run ended, someone from the Highlights Factory walked down the hall to the newsroom to let them know a clip was coming.

“We were able to get it out there pretty quickly,” Seeley said. “That still would have happened in the old system. But it would have been a lot of emails and phone calls and added steps to that process.”

■ ■ ■

NBC has 2,700 employees in Sochi, working on everything from the Olympics to “Nightly News” to the “Today” show. Many, including Lazarus, arrived in January to begin preparing for the Games, which began Feb. 6.

Sochi is significant, as it’s the first Olympics deal that Lazarus negotiated. NBC signed a $4.4 billion deal for the 2014-2020 Olympics shortly after he arrived.

Every afternoon in Sochi, Lazarus and the rest of his team wait for NBC’s report card. Overnight ratings arrive around 4 p.m. local time. Lazarus was in his office when the ratings update arrived for the Wednesday night show NBC sketched out on the white board.

The show earned a strong 13.3 overnight rating. The production team had to rework the show because Davis failed to medal in speedskating that day, but a gold medal for Team USA in women’s halfpipe helped the TV number.

Lazarus nodded when he heard the number. For him, it was more confirmation of the strategy put in place for the Sochi Games. Advertisers are happy — NBC is meeting its ratings guarantees to them.

NBC was dominating prime time and posting numbers slightly lower than Vancouver, a North American Olympics. NBC Sports Network viewership had soared to record levels.

“There’s a strange obsession with prime-time ratings,” Lazarus said. “To us, this is an Olympic business, not a prime-time schedule. Prime time is important and it’s a big revenue driver, but the story is Americans … are watching in many forms in all parts of the day.”

This view marks another example of the collaborative mindset at work. NBC no longer is focused on just building up the prime-time block. Its all-encompassing multi-platform strategy brings a lot more people to the table.

Four years ago, when Ebersol produced his last Olympic Games in Vancouver, the tablet had yet to be introduced. Now, more people are using tablets to watch the Sochi Games than PCs or laptops. NBC is seeing record numbers not only for digital, but also for its cable sports channel, NBC Sports Network.

There’s a new regime at NBC with a new mandate that goes beyond broadcast prime time. For NBC executives, it’s a change that already looks to be paying dividends in Sochi.

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