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NBC producer Jim Bell forges ahead through criticism, long hours

Emerging U.S. stars, social media help drive NBC’s performance through first week

NBC Executive Producer Jim Bell
NBC Olympics Executive Producer Jim Bell is working the night shift in Sochi.

He is keeping East Coast hours for the most part, working at NBC’s compound inside the International Broadcast Center until 7 a.m. local time most days. He leaves for his hotel after the prime-time show ends in the U.S. and returns to the office around 3 p.m.

When he gets to the compound, he spends the early part of his afternoon in his office catching up on sport and watching a live feed of NBC’s station in New York City. He has two pillows on a couch and a white blanket for a daily nap he usually takes. Two jars of peanut butter — “I love peanut butter,” Bell says — sit on the coffee table.

Six days into the Olympics, he stretched his legs out on the couch and kept his eyes on U.S. news coverage of the winter storm that hit the East Coast.

NBC received criticism for how IOC President Thomas Bach's opening ceremony speech was edited.
NBC’s coverage of the Sochi Games was running smoothly. There had only been two real issues: prime-time host Bob Costas’ infected eye, and the way IOC President Thomas Bach’s speech was edited during the prime-time broadcast of the opening ceremony. NBC cut out some of his comments about diversity, and gay and human rights advocates criticized the broadcast.

Bell didn’t think the criticism was fair. The speech was long and so was the opening ceremony. Something had to be cut for the broadcast.
 “Overall, the message was there,” Bell said. “It was a very long speech. Inevitably, we made some edits to make the show fit, and inevitably, there will be somebody who’s nose will get out of joint about whatever it is. We expect it and we take it in stride. We faced that in London. We’ll face it again in Rio.”

NBC’s ratings performance through the first week of the Games has been strong. It’s been doing that despite losing one of the most-anticipated and most-promoted stars of the Games, Lindsey Vonn, who would have competed in five events over two weeks.

“It would have been nice to have her here, but that’s fine,” Bell said. “You’ve seen other stars emerging. I don’t think too many Americans had heard of Sage Kotsenburg. It was a name that was not really reverberating around American homes until he popped that big run and won a gold medal. That was one of our messages going in — people were wringing their hands over the injury to Lindsey, and we said, ‘Hey, it would be great if she were here, but we know there are going to be other stars, American and others, that will fill that storyline for us, and that’s been the case.”

Shaun White' defeat in the halfpipe still drove viewership thanks partly to social media.
The other big star of these Games, Shaun White, competed but finished a disappointing fourth in the halfpipe competition this week. News of his loss dominated social media, but NBC still had a huge night. It posted a 13.7 fast-national rating that night and averaged 23.7 million viewers in prime time, up 12 percent and 17 percent, respectively, from the same night in 2010.

Bell said that White’s results and NBC’s results that night underscored how social media helps NBC. If White had won, social media would have helped “a lot,” Bell said, but he added the fact that White had a chance to win the event on his last run kept viewers watching.

“For a lot of people, they know and they still want to see it,” Bell said. “For a significant amount of people, they really don’t know, and I know that might seem odd to a lot of us who are strapped like an EKG machine to our Twitter feeds and whatever other devices or sites we’re getting constant information, but that’s not everybody.”

Bell is working his first Olympics without longtime Olympics executive producer Dick Ebersol. The former head of NBC Sports, who attended and offered advice during the London Games, is in Hawaii rather than Sochi.

“There’s a healthy sense of the mark he left and it’s reflected in the sense of how serious we take this but how much fun we have along the way,” Bell said. “It’s probably an odd experience for him not being here, but he’d be proud knowing we were forging ahead and doing justice to the stories of the athletes.”

Bell said that the biggest challenge is the time zone difference. The East Coast is nine hours behind Sochi, and that means that the prime-time broadcast ends when the day begins in Sochi.

“From a work-flow standpoint, a stamina standpoint, it’s pretty tough,” Bell said. “You’re juggling today’s (prime-time) show and you’re also looking at tomorrow’s show. It’s been OK, but nine hours is … weird.”

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Related Topics:

NBC, Olympics

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