In olden times, the network covering the Olympics had to use its prime time show to give viewers a broad flavor of the Games, featuring as many sports as it could cram into a several-hour window.
But in the 21st century, with every event streamed live and/or spread across an assortment of channels, NBC’s prime-time slot has become a showcase primarily for the five most ratings-friendly sports.
That is not a problem in theory, because viewers who tire of those can turn to other options. Still, executive producer Jim Bell said, NBC does try to make prime time an overview of sorts.
“I think we still have a responsibility to provide that broader experience for viewers who are going to be watching just prime time, which is still a lot of people — the most people,” he said recently. “So it’s important to give them a flavor of the city, to maybe introduce an interesting piece from Mary Carillo.
“Yes, you’re primarily talking about swimming and track and field and gymnastics and diving and beach volleyball. But we also use Bob [Costas] to work in some other sports from time to time, maybe in a highlight or if there’s sort of an iconic moment. That is still the mother ship, if you will, and that hasn’t changed.
“But the viewers have more flexibility, too, where if they happen to be massive archery fans, hey, guess what, you can watch it all!”
The good news this year for viewers is that because Rio is only one time zone over from the Eastern United States, NBC can show many more events than usual in real time.
Among the Big Three of gymnastics, swimming and track, the most important events from the second and third will be seen live, usually deep into prime time, with swimming featured mostly in Week 1 and track in Week 2.
Gymnastics, however, will hold most of its biggest events in late afternoon, so NBC will do its usual slicing, dicing and packaging for prime time. (Even gymnastics, though, can be seen live online.)
Bell said Tuesday that if gymnastics had been scheduled for later in the day, NBC gladly would have found a way to juggle live coverage alongside swimming and track.
“We wouldn’t have minded in any way, shape or form if it had been live,” he said. But the IOC had other ideas.
On the flip side, Bell was asked about some swimmers complaining about late race times.
“The schedule was set long in advance so that every athlete in every sport has a chance to know when their competition is taking place,” he said. “The IOC sets the schedule.”
Regardless of the particulars, coverage of the Olympics is more of a five-ring circus than ever. Four years after NBC first put every event of a Summer Games live online, it is doing so again, this time for a more Internet-savvy audience and to the tune of nearly 7,000 total hours of coverage.
Speaking from Rio, Bell called the city “arguably the most telegenic to have ever hosted Olympics,” not to mention one that knows “how to throw a party.”
Bell reiterated the optimism NBC executives projected last month that Rio will pull off a well-run Games, despite reports of potential problems.
If there are developments that must be addressed journalistically, Bell said, the task primarily will fall to NBC News personnel.
The biggest concern Bell expressed was the unfulfilled promise to clean up the polluted bay, which could affect events such as sailing.
Beyond that, NBC continues to express positiveness, both in the host city’s and the network’s ability to roll with Olympic challenges.
“It’s not our first rodeo,” Bell said. “We have a pretty good sense of how to gauge things and the risks involved.”
HBO’s “Real Sports” last week premiered a scathing, extended report on the IOC — including a segment on Brazil’s polluted bay. Bell said he had not yet seen it but added, “I did hear the ratings for it weren’t very good.”
He said NBC would “frame some of those issues” in a preview show Thursday night, but he added that subsequent coverage primarily would be event-based, saying, “When people are tuning into the Olympics, they want to watch the Olympics.”
The 2,200 NBC staffers in Rio will be supplemented by another thousand or so at NBC Sports headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, the first summer Games since the move there.
In 2012, U.S.-based employees worked out of the “Saturday Night Live” Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
Among those Stamford-based people will be announcers calling second-tier events off TV monitors, an increasingly common practice in sports television, and one Bell said he does not feel compelled to disclose to viewers of those events.
“It allows us to have more resources where they might be better needed and used,” he said. “I don’t think it’s being disingenuous. But we will have reporters on site at every event.”