NBC brings in star athletes to help cover Olympics like never before

The Fresno BeeFebruary 1, 2014 

LOS ANGELES — When the XXII Olympic Winter Games open on Friday, the world will turn its attention to the community of Sochi, Russia — a city with a population about half that of Fresno on the opposite side of the planet.

During the 18 days of coverage, NBC will make it easy to keep up with the events. NBC will air 185 hours of programming, while NBCSN plans 230 hours, CNBC 36, MSNBC 45 and the USA Network 43. Add in the more than 1,000 hours available through www.NBCOlympics.com and there will be almost double the programming available than in Vancouver in 2010.

But it's not the number of hours that will determine whether the coverage is a gold medal winner. It's how the networks fill them. That's why NBC has put together a small army of on-air talent — both veterans from the news and sports departments, plus former athletes — and crew to cover the games.

Team NBC already has 36 Olympic medals — 10 gold — to its credit. There are 84 former Olympians joining veteran sports announcers Bob Costas, Al Michaels and Dan Patrick.

Costas, a 25-time Emmy Award winner, will handle NBC's prime-time and late night broadcasts for the 10th time — more than any other broadcaster. Michaels will host the daytime show weekdays on NBCSN and on weekends on NBC for his seventh Olympic assignment.

"The great things about the Olympics is that you see the best of the best," Michaels says. "The whole world looks. I know the Olympics comes with a lot of warts and lot of blemishes. But to me, I've always been very excited to be a part of it."

The "warts" and "blemishes" of this year's games come from the fear of terrorist attacks and the anti-gay propaganda legislation in Russia. There's so much concern that ticket sales are lagging. Nothing looks worse in a television broadcast than athletes competing in front of empty seats.

Mark Lazarus, Chairman of NBC Sports Group, says the International Olympic Committee has addressed these issues with the Russian government and the IOC has tried to reassure athletes, fans and media that there will not be any problems during the games.

If problems arise, the NBC team will cover it.

A major part of Team NBC are the 84 Olympians covering the events. They include:

1994 speedskating gold medalist Dan Jansen

1984 figure skating gold medalist Scott Hamilton

two-time figure skating medalist Nancy Kerrigan

1998 figure skating gold medalist Tara Lipinski

2002 figure skating gold medalist Sarah Hughes

1998 freestyle skiing gold medalist Jonny Moseley

2006 ice dance silver medalist Tanith Belbin

four-time track and field medalist Ato Boldon

2008 gymnastics gold medalist Nastia Liukin

2012 women's tennis silver medalist Maria Sharapova

2010 Alpine skiing gold medalist Lindsey Vonn

No athlete brings more Winter medals to the team than eight-time short track speedskating medalist Apolo Anton Ohno. This will be the first time since 1998 that Ohno hasn't competed. He had a good idea after his performance four years ago in Vancouver that his days of competing in the Olympics were over.

"There comes a time in every single athlete's life when they have to make a decision, and I've been very, very blessed to have a wonderful career and looking forward to the next steps and chapters in my life as a broadcaster and as a part of this team," Ohno says, adding that every time he sees a commercial for the games, there's a small part of him that thinks there may be one more race in him.

Ohno and the rest of the broadcasters will cover the action and provide human interest stories. Because there is a 12-hour time difference between Sochi and the West Coast of the United States, many of the events will happen outside the prime-time viewing hours. Live coverage will be shown on cable and online with the prime-time broadcast focusing on recaps and personal stories.

Jim Bell, executive producer of the NBC telecast, considers the behind-the-scenes coverage an important part of the telecast.

"I think the important thing to note for us is that these are sports and athletes that, outside of the Olympics window, most of our viewers don't know anything about. So it's important for us to inform the viewers who want to get connected to these athletes and these sports," Bell says. "As far as the time, I think we've always tried to provide the coverage at a time when most people can watch, which is at night, and what we did in London was a pretty dramatic step in terms of addressing people who really wanted to consume it live, and now you have the ability to consume it live if you want because everything is live. You can watch every Olympic event live, period. You can, also in prime-time, gather around the tube with your family, and if it happens to be an Olympics where there's a nine-hour time delay or a six-hour time delay, watch a hopefully very nicely curated presentation of the games."

NBC also will use its regular news programs to provide additional coverage.

Brian Williams will anchor "NBC Nightly News" live from Sochi beginning Thursday. Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, Al Roker, Natalie Morales, Willie Geist and Jenna Bush Hager will host the weekday "Today" in Sochi, and Lester Holt will co-host weekend editions of "Today" and anchor weekend editions of "NBC Nightly News," and also will anchor NBC's weekday afternoon Olympic coverage.

The NBC team will face some new challenges this year as 12 new sports — including men's and women's halfpipe skiing, women's ski jumping, biathlon mixed relay, figure skating team event and luge team relay — have been added.

Bell will get an early look at his broadcast team and how the new sports will play on TV as new sport snowboard slopestyle will be featured the first night.

"So we'll get a sense of it with U.S. hopeful Shaun White competing in what is a really neat sport designed, I think, to appeal to a younger, hipper audience as the Olympics have embraced some of these sports," Bell says.

And to provide the best coverage of the new and old sports, NBC will be using the latest technology. Michaels has been broadcasting the games so long, he remembers when the biggest innovation was adding a blue dye to the ice rinks so the contrast would be sharper.

"Now, of course, you're inside masks, you're inside helmets, you don't have those great wide shots that you had to have years ago. I love where technology has taken us in every sport," Michaels says. "Jim McKay had a great line which to me is the essence of the Olympics, and he used it on 'Wide World of Sports.' It's the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, but more importantly, the human drama of athletic competition, and that to me is what the Olympics are about, and technology only enhances that."


Access NBC's extensive Olympics coverage at www.nbcolympics.com

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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