What has traditionally been the most transcendent event in the world of sports had its Opening Ceremonies in London Friday night and the competition started Saturday. Over the next 17 days NBC is planning to telecast a record 5,535 hours of Olympic coverage on nine different channels. This will include NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo, and the NBC Sports Channel. It will be a multiple platform, digital extravaganza with all of the events available for viewing live online. Laptops, smart phones, and tablets with the right apps will receive the programming. By way of contrast, NBC broadcast 2,000 hours from the 2008 Games in Beijing. With this unprecedented exposure, will the Olympics retain their impact and relevance?
The Olympics have normally created a global village of billions of viewers sharing the same experience in an intense two-week period. The normal interest of followers of sports like gymnastics, swimming, diving and track and field are eclipsed. Americans who not normally have much focus on these sports are engaged in massive numbers. One of the stimuli is nationalism, pride in American athletes at a discouraging economic time. The audience consists of many more woman than normal. Advertisers feel that woman are drawn to the human interest back stories about individual Olympians. This is why there will be an unending parade of features on athletes who have overcome hardship and challenge to become Olympic hopefuls. There have been less of these stories and less focus on the individuals competing than in years past. This means that the broadcasts themselves will have to work hard to engage viewers.
These games provide a dramatic opportunity for star building. When the television audiences are large the games transcend the narrow genre of hard-core enthusiasts, and engage the whole country. A dramatic performance combined with an interesting back story can vault an athlete to national prominence. We have a powerful celebrity oriented media which can transform athletes into national icons. Hundreds of television shows, web sites, publications are dedicated to highlighting interesting people. Winning athletes can be featured on Leno,Letterman, morning shows, talk shows and become hot. This would normally lead to high level marketability. The challenge is to keep that profile high when sports like gymnastics and swimming don't have heavily watched competitions once the games end. If there are not continuing opportunities for exposure, that Olympic heat can fade rapidly.
In 1988, I helped gold medal-winning ice skater Brian Boitano when he returned home. We were able to create an ice show featuring him and fellow gold medal-winner Katerina Witt. They had ownership interests and the show toured the country to large crowds. Brian was gifted and creative and designed a prime time television show that ran on ABC, Carmen on Ice. These activities helped to keep him in the public eye. In 1996 I worked with Kerri Strug, whose dramatic vault with a broken ankle to win a gold medal for the women's gymnastic team transfixed the country. When Bela Karoli carried her to the medal stand it created vivid imagery. But who follows gymnastics in between Olympic Games? So the challenge was to design activities which would keep her center stage. We had her ring the bell on Wall Street, be carried by Steve Case of AOL, as Bela did, onto the field of Monday Night Football at halftime, and be a presenter with Bob Hope at the Family Film Awards. We were able to convince the Ice Capades that she would be an attraction in between skating, so they set up equipment for her to perform. We created her own gymnastics show to tour the country. Saturday Night Live agreed to do a skit where Chris Kattan played her "evil twin" Skippy in a lampoon. It required her charming personality and creativity to extend her shelf life.
Michael Phelps, who was multiple medal winner in swimming in Beijing, is the best known star and he now has a handsome challenger in Ryan Lochte. Usain Bolt is the highest profile track and field competitor. Jordyn Wieber is the face of the women's gymnastic team and Missy Franklin is the young hope for women's swimming. Which of these stars will be able to excite American audiences?
NFL training camps are open and this sport has doubled any other in viewer and popularity polls. Major League Baseball is in the midst of pennant races. Soccer has penetrated American television en masse for the first non-World Cup time. Arguably the World Cup has surpassed the Olympics as the top sports event. The scenery and history of London adds appeal to these games, but will the television audiences respond?
And of course there are the inevitable off-putting decisions of the out of touch International Olympic Committee. Forty years ago Israeli athletes were slaughtered by terrorists at the Munich Olympics. Avery Brundage, head of the IOC, had no perspective and declared "the games must go on". There have been moments of silence at Opening Ceremonies for the 9/11 victims and individual athletes who had died, but none for the Israeli Olympians. Politics and anti-Semitism trumped decency once again.
So the Games have begun once again and it will be intriguing to see if they still carry the same world-wide fascination and focus.
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