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How NBC Has Blown an Olympic Opportunity to Engage the Public

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The Olympics are underway and I can't help thinking that NBC has once again blown a chance to really engage the American public in the games. As the opening ceremonies rolled on, it was hard not to look at the procession of athletes and wonder "Who ARE these people?" Or as Andy Borowitz said on Twitter, "Seriously, on any other day, if you turned on TV and saw people in bad sweaters walking with flags, would you watch?"

NBC has once again failed the Olympic athletes by failing to harness the power of reality TV.

Reality TV gets maligned but it's just another genre. Reality shows can be good or bad, interesting or repetitive. But it's beyond question that shows like Fox's American Idol and NBC's own The Biggest Loser have shown the power of reality TV to create household names and get audiences emotionally involved with total strangers.

This process has to be done over a period of months. You can't create this deep audience identification overnight. It's reinforced by the familiarity of seeing the same people compete and struggle, week after week.

You'd think NBC would have learned this lesson and applied it to Olympics. Instead, we get the games dropped in our laps with a bewildering schedule and hundreds of new faces, names and events. We know we're supposed to root for the people wearing our flag but it's really impossible to give the audience understanding and a real feeling of connection in such a short time frame.

But it's not just the audience that NBC would be helping by giving us access to these young men and women -- it's the athletes themselves.

There are reality stars who are famous for just being famous but many have become household names by being damn talented. One Jennifer Hudson makes up for a dozen Snookis and Kate Gosselins. Anyone who's made the Olympics is someone talented, dedicated and worth knowing. Introducing us to them would be reality TV at its best -- connecting viewers to inspirational people and their stories.

This would have been a big win for NBC, too. Their faltering schedule could certainly use a boost, and a few well produced reality shows with Olympic hopefuls would have boosted their prime-time ratings and produce that 'synergy' thing that network executives seem to love to talk about.

In fact, NBC-Universal has such a wide platform of networks to program on -- from SyFy to Bravo -- that it easily could have had a handful of different Olympic related shows leading up to the games, each one aimed at bringing different audiences to the games. And those audiences would be smarter, more involved and ready to root for personalities that they'd gotten to know and care about over the past few months.

Instead, we get strangers in sweaters. Rah rah.

Lee Stranahan is a former employee of NBC. He made graphics, not programming decisions. Jeff Zucker should feel free to friend Lee on Facebook.

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