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Monday, August 2

NBC's Olympic coverage spans 7 networks

By Mike Hughes | GNS

During the Olympics, television alternates between action and aesthetics, between the whoosh of competition and the psychology of the athletes' lives.

This year the action and the whoosh will prevail with the most comprehensive Olympic coverage ever via NBC Universal networks. The 24-hour per day coverage will span seven networks under the NBC umbrella, including NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, USA, Bravo, Telemundo and NBC's new HDTV network.

The games are being held in Athens, Greece Aug. 13-29, but NBC's cable networks begin coverage of some preliminary events Aug. 11.

"Our goal is to have very event-driven programming," says David Neal, the executive vice-president of NBC Olympics.

He's gone into some previous Olympics with more than 100 features taped in advance.

This year, with 1,210 TV and cable hours to fill, he has only 80 films, and none much longer than two minutes.

Those films still serve a purpose, Neal says, introducing viewers to events they've heard little about. One of Neal's favorites looks at the 20th anniversary of the Olympics' first women's cross-country race.

More than half of the films will be about athletes from outside the United States, he says. Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports, is trying to nudge past the "America against the world" days. "If you went anywhere else in the world, you'd find that we're the least nationalistic in our coverage," Ebersol says.

That's one of many issues NBC faces. They include:

- Key sports: A few events dominate, Ebersol says. "About 60 percent of the primetime coverage has been a mix of swimming, diving, gymnastics and track-and-field."

As luck would have it, those are all sports Americans do well in. Ebersol quickly lapses into us-and-them talk. "We have the deepest and best female gymnastics team we've ever had, (and) a young man named Paul Hamm who's the defending world champion in all-around gymnastics."

Hamm still won't get as much attention as swimmer Michael Phelps. "He has a reasonable chance to threaten Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in a single Olympics," says Bob Costas, NBC's Olympic anchor

- Basketball: The "dream team" days of putting all the best players on the Olympic team have passed.

Things are different in most Olympic sports, Costas says. "The place where they make their name and validate their reputations is always the Olympics."

That's not true of basketball, so Ebersol is happy with the stars that are showing up.

"Arguably the best player in the game by far is going to the games, and that's Tim Duncan," he says. "The other one who has not dropped off of this team is the one who, years ago, everybody would have thought would have been the first to leave, and that's Allen Iverson."

- The time difference: Athens is seven hours ahead of New York so when Costas starts his prime-time coverage at 8 p.m. EDT, it will be 3 a.m. in Greece. "There's no way to do that live," Ebersol says.

Prime-time events are taped with live commentary. When they're shown, Costas will already know the winners. "You can't give the result away," Costas says, "but neither can you feign anticipation."

The high-interest events will be saved for prime time. Others, however, will be live on cable. When Bravo starts its coverage at 5 a.m. weekdays it will be noon in Athens.

Some live events will even pop up late at night. One example, Ebersol says, will be Aug. 18, at the same site where the original Olympic games were held. "At 1:30 in the morning or two o'clock in the morning Eastern time, the women's preliminary of the shotput will be seen live on MSNBC."

- News: NBC News has two reporters, Bob Hager and Kelly O'Donnell, assigned to Ebersol's unit. There is much that they could report on, from drug controversies to the potential for terrorism.

"I think where our employees work and sleep will be incredibly safe," Ebersol says. "But I would not be encouraging our employees to wander off to a discotheque at 2 o'clock in the morning."

- High definition: A separate signal will be sent on the HDTV channel operated by many NBC affiliates, Ebersol says. For now, that will stick to events happening in four neighboring stadiums. Things will be different in 2006, when the Winter Olympics are in Torino, Italy, he says.

"We will do the Torino games completely in HD."

On the Web:

NBC's Olympic site for a complete schedule of Olympic events.

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