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Multiple platforms are golden for NBC

Strategy may become model for future media coverage

As recently as a week ago, a ratings gold medal for coverage of the Beijing Olympics may have looked beyond NBC’s grasp.

The average U.S. household has more than 100 channels to choose from, and games held in foreign countries – as seen in Greece in 2004 or Australia in 2000 – just don’t tend to grab the attention of Americans like Olympics held closer to home. What’s more, the yawning time difference between China and the U.S. makes it difficult to air big events live. There are so many video-sharing Web sites now that intrepid fans can simply bypass packaged broadcasts and get real-time coverage if they want.

But as NBC’s Olympics telecast enters its sixth day to record ratings – the best numbers for a summer Olympiad since Atlanta in 1996 – it’s evident that the Beijing Olympics have become, for many viewers, the type of all-consuming addiction seldom seen in modern media, with the online content stoking appetites for TV coverage and vice versa.

“We’re on pace to be the most-watched Olympics ever,” said NBC research chief Alan Wurtzel.

The television coverage may, in fact, be buoyed by the Internet’s ability to provide a bottomless well of information for anyone who seeks it. NBC, presenting its 11th Olympics, is lavishing a record 3,600 hours of coverage on the Beijing games, plus additional material on the Web.

“NBC has a dedicated soccer channel (on cable) and live stuff on,” said Jonathan Mays, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Missouri. Mays said he can follow the progress of the teams as they move from the group stage through quarterfinals and finals.

Parent company NBC Universal may be doing more than just racking up some nice numbers from Nielsen Media Research; it may be rewriting rules for media in the future.

As the TV audience subdivides into ever-shrinking niches, sapping the ratings of virtually all programming options, marquee sporting events have emerged as the one format that can unite the nation. Earlier this year, Fox’s Super Bowl smashed records with 97.5 million total viewers.

Now, NBC estimates that 157 million people watched at least some of the coverage spread across its various TV, online or wireless platforms during the first four days in Beijing. An average of 30.4 million viewers watched nightly in prime time, according to Nielsen. That exceeds the audience for most airings of Fox’s musical smash “American Idol” and is especially impressive considering that, thanks to out-of-town vacations and daylight stretching past 8 p.m. in some areas, fewer people watch television during the summer months than at other times of the year.

NBC’s Beijing Olympics Web site in just four days swept past the entire 2004 Athens games in every key metric, including page views (291.1 million vs. 229.9 million).

Reached by phone Tuesday in Beijing, Wurtzel, president of television research and media development for NBC Universal, called the Olympics an “extraordinary research laboratory” for the company to learn how to deliver content on multiple platforms and understand viewer behavior.

The games are spurring TV-watching among those who ordinarily would have had their sets switched off. In a research note Tuesday, New York ad firm Magna noted that for Friday’s opening ceremonies “most of NBC’s increased audience came from people that weren’t watching TV three weeks ago.”

Clearly, NBC has been aided by the fact that the games are being held in China, a rising power that incites deep curiosity and conflicting passions for many Americans. Friday’s opening ceremonies, the culmination of seven years’ preparation and an estimated $300 million in production costs, were widely considered to be a creative triumph. Swimmer Michael Phelps’ quest to win eight gold medals provides the kind of heroic story necessary to keep viewers glued to their sets.

“Without question, Michael Phelps is our biggest star,” said NBC marketing vice president Mike McCarley.

Add it up and one begins to see how Beijing has enabled NBC to overcome the bad memories from its disastrous Olympics “triplecast” pay-per-view experiment in Barcelona in 1992, when the company lost an estimated $100 million after betting mistakenly that viewers would shell out extra cash to watch their favorite events.

There is always the chance that viewer interest will wane before the closing ceremonies. But that seems unlikely with stars like Phelps around.

Starting last November, NBC began promoting the swimmer as a potential Olympics star, including him during its coverage of the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. “Knowing his story will play out live in prime time, fans can follow him and his story much like a serialized drama,” said NBC’s McCarley.

Indeed, NBC executives have treated this Olympics as a consummate cultural event, not just as an athletic competition.

As Wurtzel said, “The reason we’ve reached half of America is (that it’s) way beyond just a sporting event.”