NBC heads into 'billion-dollar lab'

OMAHA, NE - JUNE 30: Ryan Lochte competes

OMAHA, NE - JUNE 30: Ryan Lochte competes in the first semifinal heat of the Men's 100 m Butterfly during Day Six of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team Trials at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb. (June 30, 2012) (Credit: Getty)

The Olympics are the most polarizing of major athletic events, with many avid sports fans pooh-poohing them as a tape-delayed, melodramatic irrelevance and millions of other Americans embracing the pageantry and patriotism.

At last, NBC believes it has come up with a method to address both constituencies while preserving its business interests. And it just might work! Or not.

That is why Alan Wurtzel, NBC Universal's president of research, has dubbed the Games the "billion-dollar lab,'' a nod to the uncharted territory into which the company will travel in London.

Here's the plan: As is customary for time zone-unfriendly Olympics, NBC will offer heavily produced, condensed, prettified versions of the most important -- or at least most popular -- events for its prime-time show.

But for the first time, it also will make every event in the Games available live on the Internet, to the tune of 3,500 total hours and up to 40 streams simultaneously.

The live coverage will be purposely no-frills, using the world video feed and lesser-known announcers -- in some cases no announcers at all.

So if you would like to see Michael Phelps swim against Ryan Lochte as it occurs, be NBC's guest, as long as you have an Internet connection and a validated subscription to a cable, satellite or telephone company television provider.

If you would like to watch it in the evening with relatives and / or friends on the big-screen TV in the den, complete with interviews and insights, NBC will be pleased to accommodate that, too. Best of all for NBC: Watch it both times!

The network is confident the vast majority will opt for the at-home television experience, which is where most of the advertising money naturally is.

Mark Lazarus, chairman of the NBC Sports Group, said: "When you do research and ask people, 'When are you available to watch the Olympic Games?' the answer comes back: 'After dinner.' That's the crux of it.''

Added host Bob Costas: "It's a lot easier, if you're writing for newspaper X, to say with righteous indignation [tape delay] is some sort of outrage. Yet if that person swapped jobs that day with Dick Ebersol or now Mark Lazarus they would either do exactly the same thing or they would be fired and then taken to a sanitarium.

"It's a simple, straightforward business decision that now has been modified I think in an enlightened way to allow for the changes in the way people consume information."

There will be some live events televised on NBC and affiliated cable channels, mostly in the afternoon. (London is five hours ahead of Eastern time.) Overall, the network plans about 5,500 hours of coverage on various platforms.

No one can watch all that, obviously, which is why many casual fans are satisfied with heavy doses of tape-delayed gymnastics, swimming, beach volleyball and track and field.

Costas said he long ago learned that covering the Olympics is unlike any other major sports event. "It's a prime-time miniseries spread out over nearly three weeks,'' he said.

That is the sort of approach that makes many traditional sports fans cringe, but it is a time-tested formula. So even though NBC does not expect to match the ratings it got in Beijing in 2008, when the schedule was engineered to slip Phelps' eight-gold-medals performance into prime time in the United States, it expects to dominate 17 nights of summer TV.

Even if some people already have watched the biggest events live on computers.

"I think it's part of our obligation to fans who invest in our prime time, and part of the relationship with affiliates, to say we're going to put the storytelling packaging, the rich history of how NBC presents events, in prime time,'' Lazarus said. "We're not going to replicate it on another platform. We're going to provide it, but not replicate it.''