News and highlights from NBC’s coverage of Vancouver Olympics

By David Bauder, AP
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

News and notes from NBC’s Olympics coverage

NEW YORK — A look at NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics:

UNIVERSAL SPORTS: Claude Ruibal believes NBC wants to and will continue as the Olympics network beyond London in 2012, after which U.S. television rights are up for grabs. He essentially bet his company on it.

Ruibal is chairman and CEO of the Universal Sports network, which is televising five hours per day of Olympics material from Vancouver to the 33 million homes where it is being seen in the U.S. The network provides up-to-the-minute updates of Olympics events and background programs on events like figure skating. Olympic champions Shaun White, Hannah Teter and Evan Lysacek have all stopped by for interviews.

Universal Sports is the former World Championship Sports network, which Ruibal started in 2003. He was a fan of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and its variety of competitions from around the globe while growing up, and he noted that many of the sports popular every four years at the Olympics have little television exposure otherwise. He set about acquiring the rights to many of them — ski tours, swimming championships, volleyball, track and field — to give them a TV home.

“I didn’t think there was a champion for it,” Ruibal said. “But I do think there is a champion set of consumers who want to see it.”

In 2008, he entered into a partnership with NBC Universal and investors Inter Media Partners. There was talk the U.S. Olympic Committee was interested in setting up its own network, and Ruibal wanted to block the way competitively.

NBC’s cable properties — USA, MSNBC, CNBC — have all been used as spillover networks for Olympics events in Vancouver. Universal has another purpose and, unlike the other networks, will provide updates on events that NBC otherwise wants to keep quiet until they are shown in prime-time. NBC won’t scoop its own prime-time show but will provide more extensive video of events to Universal than it gives to other news organizations.

From NBC’s standpoint, the network was a wise investment because it gives viewers the chance to see stars like White, Lindsey Vonn or Bode Miller outside of the Olympics so fans might know something about them every four years when the big event takes place.

“Universal Sports enables us to open up a new dimension in how we cover the games,” said Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics. “They provide a platform that allows us to pause from coverage and focus attention on the evolving stories and excitement of the Olympics.”

That’s all good for the network, unless Fox or ESPN outbids NBC Universal for the games in 2014, 2016 and beyond.

“Obviously, we linked up with NBC because they’re the Olympics broadcaster, and the hope is that they will continue to be the Olympics broadcasters,” Ruibal said. “I have to believe there’s some real strong interest or desire to keep going with Olympics coverage.”

HIGHLIGHT: Perceptive and sensitive work by bobsled analyst John Morgan. He skillfully explains how the smallest of differences in a run can mean victory and defeat, while he’s also had to keep on top of conditions on a course that has proved deadly. Germany’s Cathleen Martini and Romy Logsch were involved in a scary crash in the women’s competition Wednesday. “I had said this track had been tamed,” Morgan admitted. “I guess I spoke too soon.”

LOWLIGHT: NBC’s inexplicable decision to air the U.S. men’s hockey game against Switzerland on tape delay out West, three hours behind. It’s not like a Nordic ski event, folks. Give NBC credit for recognizing the blunder and announcing that Friday’s hockey game will be shown live across the country.

QUOTE: “A good, old-fashioned schoolin’, given by the Canadians to the Russians.” —men’s hockey analyst Pierre McGuire on CNBC, after the home team’s triumph.

NICKNAME OF THE OLYMPICS: Tough to top “The Flying Kangaroo,” better known as Australian aerial gold medalist Lydia Lassila.

RATINGS: In its second week, Vancouver is starting to fade for NBC as a ratings dynamo. Tuesday’s coverage was seen by an average of 21.3 million people, compared with 25.1 million for the comparable night in Turin, Italy, four years ago, according to the Nielsen Co. One reason may be the lack of an American favorite in women’s figure skating, the Winter Olympics’ marquee event. Four years ago, American silver medalist Sasha Cohen was a major contender, while this year the two dominant skaters hail from South Korea and Japan and are relatively unknown in this country.

It marked the second night in a row that Vancouver’s viewership was down from four years ago, after it had been up every night since then.

“American Idol” made it two out of three in its head-to-head competition with the Olympics. The Fox competition was seen by 24 million people Tuesday, while the Olympics drew 20.8 million viewers at the same time.

SKATE SEATING: During its broadcast Tuesday of Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette’s emotional performance only days after her mother died, NBC misidentified a spectator as being Rochette’s father, Normand. The person was actually a family friend, and NBC apologized for the mistake on its late-night broadcast, saying it was given a wrong seat assignment by Canadian skating authorities.

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