(ATR) London will deliver an exciting backdrop for the Olympics says Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics. In this Tuesday Talk, Zenkel also covers Rio de Janeiro, Sochi and why mobile technology helps deliver big TV audiences.
Zenkel began work with NBC in 1990, his career with the network focused on business development and rights negotiations, including the Olympics. He is schooled as a lawyer and worked for a New York firm before joining NBC. He became president of NBC Olympics in 2005.
ATR Editor Ed Hula spoke with Zenkel late last month at his office at NBC headquarters in New York.
Around the Rings: What can you say right now about where NBC stands as far as London preparations go? Has it been a smooth ride for you?
It has. I met Paul Deighton [London 2012 COO] soon after he was selected to run the organizing committee and we’ve developed a great working relationship with him and his team for the past six or so years. We feel very confident in them and we feel very confident with where they are in both construction and planning and execution. We’ve attended some test events and things have gone extremely well, so we’re really, really excited about these games.
Gary Zenkel, NBC Olympics President. (ATR)
ATR: Can you tell a difference between London, Beijing, Athens and so forth?
They appear to be a bit further along than some of the prior summer games in terms of development of venues, the completion of transfer from developing the plan into executing. Those [other hosts] are all great Olympics but just because I think [London] got an advanced completion of the venues and planning. I think they’re in terrific shape.
ATR: For London as a host of the games with its iconic venues, its historic links and ties, what does it mean for NBC and stories that you tell, the setting you’re able to bring viewers?
Well the host city and host country are often very important parts of what makes up the fabric of our coverage, the stories certainly of the culture and the people and the athletes in the host country is always an important part of the way in which we present the Olympics. London and the UK obviously hold a very special place in the lives of Americans, there’s great interest in London, and many people have not been there and are curious about it, the history is incredible and fascinating and the country is beautiful and the city offers so many different aspects to add.
And then there’s a great Olympic history in London, and a great Olympic history to the British athlete. All of that will be brought to light and given great context to bring to life what will happen today, as we tell the stories that we love to tell.
ATR: Do you think more people will watch this than other games because of this affinity that the U.S. audience might have for the British story?
The Olympics continues to attract a massive audience in [the U.S.]. There’s just a love of the Olympic Games. It crosses every demographic group, every age group, gender. No matter where the Games are located there are of course unique stories and connections that we always make to the locations. But it’s the Olympic Games that people ultimately tune into and the Olympic Games is still something the American population loves to gather around. Whether it’s in London, Beijing, Athens or Rio in 2016 they will come to watch those athletes compete and listen to their stories.
ATR: So you’re not making any predictions about record numbers for ratings, like the USOC medal count?
No, we don’t do that.
ATR: This time around for NBC it’s without Dick Ebersol in a leadership role. What can you say about what’s different about your Olympic coverage without his guidance?
The people that will produce our coverage is the same team of people that worked and grew up under Dick Ebersol for over 20 years. London will be my ninth Olympics. There are others who began prior to Barcelona, which was my first, that have worked as part of this team led by Dick for all of those years.
We’re all still here and we respect the way in which we have presented the Olympics, that generally will not change.
What I will say, is that our coverage has always changed. Technology has given us the opportunity to present more coverage to make it available on more platforms at more times of the day. We have acquired cable networks and now we have been acquired by Comcast that has more cable networks and more technology and so our coverage will continue to evolve as it always has. As media evolves as technology evolves as NBC University evolves but the fundamental way in which we produce and present the Olympics will not change.
ATR: Taking over from Dick Ebersol as NBC Sports chairman is Mark Lazarus. How is his influence being felt?
Mark is fully supportive of our Olympic efforts. He moved us ahead by quickly declaring that every event will be live on at least one platform from London until 2020. But the core production values that we have always employed in our presentation of the Games, such as storytelling, will never change. Mark believes in them and is allowing our very experienced and exceptional Olympic team to do its job.
ATR: You talk about all the different platforms that you now have available to you. Does it make it easier for you to plan Olympic coverage with so many different ways to tell the story, to present the story different audiences?
No it makes it harder, there’s more content to be distributed, there’s more equipment to be procured, to be wired, there’s more places to integrate advertising its far more complex and every single Olympics. We re-scale
Matt Lauer interviews Michael Phelps in Beijing for the Today show.
and re-design and re-deploy our engineer geniuses to deliver the Games in the broadest possible way and in a way that we can take full advantage of all the versatility that technology allows. It’s far more complicated.
ATR: What can you say about the use mobile devices to access sports coverage. What that would mean for your Olympic coverage moving forward?
I think it’s a fantastic development, it gives people the opportunity to view and share content during the course of the day. We have found over the course of the last four or so games, certainly back around Athens when we began to deploy the Olympics on many more platforms, that it actually created more buzz, more conversation and then more interest in ultimately gathering American audience in front of their televisions for the primetime show.
Mobile technology simply creates another, expands the opportunity for the American consumer to view. And interestingly the other thing the mobile device allows is for the younger American audience that likes to multi-task, that often operates with more than one screen to watch, as well as to delve deeper either into content, highlights or even messaging.
The enabling of the distribution of video into the mobile platform is a great benefit to the audience and to our objectives.
ATR: And it doesn’t take away from the affiliates, the TV stations across the country that carry NBC ? It helps the affiliates?
We believe there is nothing more important than delivering that massive audience to our primetime broadcasters. A lot of the economics of the Olympics is captured in prime time, and so everything we do outside of primetime production and distribution coverage is designed to grow that audience.
So no, we think that the delivery of content to the mobile platform as we found out when we put it on four cable channels in 2004, increases the interest, increases awareness, increases the bigness of the Olympics because it’s everywhere.
There’s tremendous amount of research that supports that and so we continue
Rockefeller Plaza headquarters for NBC in New York. (ATR)
to expand our coverage, and our prime time rating continues to grow.
ATR: And the commercial appeal of London Olympics, are you finding advertisers eager to be part of it?
They are, we are pacing beautifully, were virtually sold out, and so we’re very excited about the commercial market place, which is as excited as we are about the London Olympics.
ATR: What about looking ahead to Sochi, what kind of work are you doing there?
I have personally been there four times, I’ve been there twice in the last six months. My first trip there was just after the Beijing Games in 2008, and I’m blown away by the work that has taken place, the development in those three or so years, and the work that continues. I have arrived there each time in the evening, driven from the airport to the mountains and work continues no matter what time of day it is. There are trucks moving back and forth on that highway what seems to be like all night long.
So I am very impressed with the progress they have made both in the seaside Olympic Park cluster, as well as up in the mountains where we saw renderings in 2008 and those renderings are absolutely coming to life.
And I think it’s a great country, there’s great enthusiasm. It has a great organizing committee standing behind this development which has let nobody down yet in terms of delivering on their promises, so we are excited about Sochi.
ATR: Logistically a little more complicated than London and certainly Vancouver?
Well it’s harder to get to. I will tell you, but once you get there it’s actually maybe one of the most efficient Olympic set ups or footprints I’ve ever experienced, probably is, with a very compact seaside cluster and than 30 km north to four mountain resorts that are absolutely connected and adjacent to one another. And when the rail and the highway are completed, I haven’t been around forever but I haven’t experienced quite this efficiency since Salt Lake.
ATR: Since Sochi won the Games, Russia has changed its time zones so that the Games will take place nine hours ahead of New York instead of eight hours. Has that affected your coverage at all?
No, that one hour is not critical. As you know when we acquire Olympics we most of the time acquire them not knowing where they are going to be. We believe there’s great value in the Olympics. The location and time zone is not critical. There are places where it’s easier where it’s on live, but we’ve done I think nine Olympics in the last 27 years with only three in the US time zones, and they consistently achieve our objectives, they deliver massive audiences.
So that hour is not critical. The prime time show is on tape by definition because Russia will not host events at 2 a.m. But there will be plenty of live content throughout the course of the U.S. day and we have no doubt that the audience will show up again, as they did in other European Olympics.
ATR: Last, to talk about Rio, another place like London with an extraordinary back drop for the Games. Is that something you would want to capitalize on, exploit as much as you can?
Yes, there’s always a tremendous amount of texture that the local environment brings to our coverage, and there are few more beautiful places that I’ve been in Rio and Brazil and that will be showcased. It will get our full attention when we get on the backside of London but I have been there once and other parts of our Olympic planning team has been there a few times so we’re paying attention and we are very fond of the organizers who we know well, Carlos Nuzman and Leonardo Gryner, just from traveling in Olympic circles for so many years.
We have all the confidence that it’s going to be a fantastic Olympics.
Conducted by Ed Hula. Transcribed and prepared by Evan Owens.
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