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Volume 20 No. 42
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NBC’s Olympic shoot grows in importance

It was 74 degrees and sunny outside a nondescript studio in West Hollywood last week. But inside, the Winter Olympics had come nine months early.

On Stage 1, an industrial fan blew smoke and fake snow into Shaun White’s face as he repeatedly jumped and twisted halfway around on a snowboard. A camera that can shoot at 1,000 frames per second followed his movement. “Is there snow in his hair?” someone asked before reaching in and plucking the flake.

A camera-ready Mike Tirico walked the hallway, with NBC coordinating producer Becky Chatman leading him past a gaggle of freshly made-up Olympians and their agents into another room. On Stage 2, ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson gamely admitted, with cameras rolling, that she didn’t remember what she wore on her first date with her boyfriend, freestyle skier Torin Yater-Wallace.

Elsewhere in the complex, Cookie Monster interviewed snowboarder Hailey Langland. Outdoors, twin pug puppies Pugsly and Musgly waited their turn to frolic with athletes on camera — a can’t-miss social media trope — while their friend, Prince the piglet, retreated to his dressing room to relax. NBC Sports veterans Jim Bell, Joe Gesue, John Miller and Mark Levy circulated.

That was just the first few hours of NBC’s sixth WeHo (short for West Hollywood) pre-Olympics production shoot, a grueling affair that creates more than half of all the Olympics imagery you’ll see before the Winter Games’ opening ceremony next February. Over the course of five days, the 96 most marketable members of Team USA each spent 10.5 hours in front of cameras, cycling through 20 stations in 20-minute bursts.

A deal with Sesame Workshop brought Elmo, here with freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy, and Cookie Monster into the social media shoots.

Some of the results were posted to social media live. However, most of it will be packaged for distribution across the NBCUniversal and U.S. Olympic team footprints from now through the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. It will appear on NBC News, local affiliates, out-of-home promotional campaigns, BuzzFeed, U.S. Olympic Committee-licensed merchandise sites and catalogues, NBC’s “Today” show, e-commerce sites and much more.

“So much of the foundation of what we build originates out of this,” said Jennifer Storms, NBC Sports Group chief marketing officer. “I’ve been in media for two decades, and this is the most robust and enormous content capture I’ve ever been a part of. So whether this is where we’re gathering it, or this is the seed of something that then gets built, the majority starts here.”

The WeHo shoot originated after the 2006 Torino Games, when NBC decided it needed to gather more lifestyle and personality-driven video of the athletes farther out from the Olympics than in the past. Created in conjunction with the USOC, the intense assembly-line experience has evolved with the changing media landscape to emphasize social media more, but still serves the core mission of building an audience for the Winter Games.

All indications are it will be a challenge in 2018. In 2016, Olympic viewership across all platforms declined 9 percent from London — though NBC still posted a $250 million profit — and most Olympic insiders are preparing for a low-key Games in South Korea.

As it has been every two years, the new media landscape is making for more work. NBC is preparing to launch the dedicated, linear Olympic Channel this summer, and has acquired the youth sports-oriented Sports Ngin (now SportsEngine) app since the last WeHo shoot, both of which will require content.

When the shoot completed on April 29, producers began assessing the work, finding details to elaborate on and beginning to seed future programming and promotional spots, Storms said. Most viewers won’t notice a major Pyeongchang push until the six-month-out mark in August, but NBC will start with some promotion around Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.

NBCSN has also built out a portfolio of rights to Summer Olympic sports that will serve as a launch pad for the 2018 campaign. Storms said NBC’s long-term partnership with the Olympics, through 2032, has facilitated the close working relationship with the USOC. “The other thing that’s different about what we have now is the Olympics is 24/7/365 for us, it’s a part of the fabric of the company every day,” she said.

With $7.7 billion invested in the long-term deal and pressure to deliver to advertisers, NBC can’t only promote on its own channels. It invited People magazine into the WeHo shoot to build interest in personality stories of its would-be stars. Another deal with the Sesame Workshop brought Elmo and Cookie Monster into the social media shoots.

The made-for-social stations, interspersed among more serious fare such as the Getty Images stage and the “Today Show” trailer, are designed to catch anyone who’s not paying attention to Olympians and NBC.

“Our strategy is to get outside of what we control, to reach a large audience,” said Lyndsay Signor, senior director of consumer engagement at NBC Sports. “The goal is to get Olympians in front of people who maybe aren’t as diehard as our core audience.”

Shaun White and NBC’s Natalie Morales enjoy puppy power on Team USA’s Instagram account.

In the early days, athletes had to be convinced to attend WeHo. It’s a long, hard day, and it’s not in service to a specific paying sponsor.

But 10 years later, athletes and their agents lobby to make sure they’re included. There’s a direct payoff in brand interest, said Steve Ruff, senior vice president of action and Olympic sports at Wasserman. If an athlete is at WeHo, it’s a strong signal to future sponsors that NBC will make him or her one of the faces of the Games, putting them near the front of the pack for deals.

“I think you have to manage their expectations,” Ruff said of the shoots. “Because they’re all so honored to be part of it, but it is a very long day. Just back-to-back-to-back stuff.”

One big way the shoot has changed: Athletes used to be muzzled during the shoot, expected to protect NBC’s future prerogatives. But lately, athletes have been freed to share anything they want from the shoot, in real time.

The USOC had its social command center in Colorado Springs working during the shoot, too, assisting athletes with the behind-the-scenes, real-time coverage and doing its own coverage of WeHo. Organizers also brought select groups of athletes to additional shoots at Lake Placid, N.Y., Mammoth Mountain in California and a nearby ice rink in Los Angeles.

The idea is to connect fans with both the athletes and the Team USA brand when they might otherwise not be, said Brian Gordon, managing director of marketing and USOC productions.

“Our fans love to see behind the scenes and see things they can’t usually get, and we’re able to do that in real time here,” Gordon said. “And we find that real-time posting, and seeing the athletes in this situation, really increases our engagement.”

But the USOC has a slightly different mission than NBC at the WeHo shoot. The USOC is focusing on biographical information and merchandise, and will put off its social media content gathering until its Team USA Media Summit in September, which is open to all media.

The trick of the WeHo shoot is to build the entire Olympic movement by promoting individual stars.

“The stars are out there,” Gordon said, “and now our other athletes, who we’re building as stars, can get caught up in the wash of what Shaun’s doing, so it elevates everybody.”