ATHENS -- A few hundred yards from Olympic Stadium is a cream-colored monolith that is the 2004 Games' International Broadcast Center. Inside is NBC's Games headquarters and Dick Ebersol. Twenty-four hours a day. NBC's top sports executive is the International Broadcast Center's only full-time resident, and he has not left it for almost two weeks.
He moved out of his Athens hotel on Aug. 12 and into a large office with a queen-size bed the same day. He scans 45 TV monitors in one corner of his office. A teddy bear given to him by his crew rests on his bed, hurting for attention. Because of Greece's seven-hour time difference and Ebersol's need to monitor coverage, he sleeps between 7:30 and 11:30 a.m. The lack of sleep does not bother him.
"I live more than anything else to produce the Games," he says.
And is he producing the Games.
By the time the 2004 Games wrap up tomorrow night with the Closing Ceremonies, America will have been served an unprecedented 1,210 hours of Olympics television coverage over 17 days -- more than the last five Summer Olympics combined. They are seen on NBC in prime time and during some daytime hours, and at various times of day on other networks under the umbrella of NBC parent General Electric: Telemundo, MSNBC, CNBC, USA, Bravo and the HDTV feed.
All told, according to NBC, the company's coverage in Athens will be the most-watched overseas Games ever.
Ebersol forged ahead with this intense plan even though conventional wisdom held that a 17-day viewing commitment was not possible in today's fragmented television landscape and its vast entertainment options. He forged ahead even though the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney were the lowest-rated Olympics since 1968.
But the formula is working:
NBC's viewership is up 13 percent from those Games. As of Wednesday, an average prime-time audience of 25.6 million has watched the competition, surpassing Sydney's 22.6 million for the same period.
If the Olympics have changed since the Cold War, so, too, has their main broadcaster. "So much of the instant success of the Olympics in the '60s, '70s and '80s was tied up in the existence of the Iron Curtain," says Ebersol, whose first job was as a researcher for Roone Arledge, the late ABC sports and news president. "It gave the Olympics its greatest rivalries: East vs. West, USA vs. the Soviet Union, Stars and Stripes vs. Hammer and Sickle. . . . In the past, you could rely on the color of the uniform, however unfair that was."
Reversing the trend of declining Olympic ratings took some luck -- a controversial gymnastics competition, historic upsets of the U.S. men's basketball team and what Ebersol calls the "super story of Michael Phelps." It also took content changes. After Sydney, NBC had to do something.
In Australia, nary a bigger party will ever be thrown, but back in the States, the Sydney Games did not translate for a variety of reasons: The Games were held in September after Americans had gone back to work and school and while the NFL season was in full tilt on competing networks. The U.S. gymnastics teams collapsed within days. What's more, because of the time difference, there were 15 hours to spread the word via the Internet before NBC's coverage began for the day.
The Sydney coverage also came under criticism for its heavy use of back-lighted, human-interest features with companion mood music. The network used 125 features over 17 days in Sydney. NBC trimmed that figure back to fewer than 100 for the Salt Lake Winter Games in 2002. For Athens, the number is down to about 50.
"It got to be where people started making fun of the sentimental music coming on, like, 'Oh, boy, another down-and-out Olympic hero about to make us cry,' " says one industry consultant, who spoke on condition that his name not be used. "They just couldn't sell it to a more cynical public. The events [are] what they tuned in for."
The lack of human-interest snippets might put more of a premium on the events, but some analysts worry that it makes for a more parochial sports-viewing nation.
"It's no one's fault, but the lack of profiles makes it harder to sell a non-American athlete to the U.S. audience," says Neal Pilson, a former CBS sports president who now runs his own sports-television consulting company. "The Olga Korbut. The Nadia Comaneci. If you don't have personal information about these athletes, it's hard to persuade the American audience to get emotionally involved in them. That's one of the risks you run."
In the Athens Games, NBC's ratings have risen significantly when U.S. athletes are featured, according to various media outlets. The first Saturday's ratings peaked when Phelps won a gold medal.
Ebersol believes there's a middle ground. NBC now relies on announcers to beef up their coverage by working story lines into their commentary and analysis. "We have to admit we live in an increasingly MTV, ESPN, bang-flash environment, where every sound bite comes and goes instantaneously," he says. "The vast majority of viewers don't know Hicham El Guerrouj," the great Moroccan middle-distance runner who won gold in the 1,500 meters Tuesday night in a memorable finish. "They won't know him until the day before his competition on NBC. But if we do a good job, since they come anyway for the Games, they will share and enjoy the 15 or 20 minutes we show of him. He'll move them."
Of course, the sophisticated viewer might argue that Ebersol's formula works because you cannot get away from the Games, given those 1,210 hours of coverage on seven channels. Indeed, many analysts interpret Ebersol's gamble -- "I lost my mind," he recently joked of the blanket coverage -- as just good business sense.
For Sydney, the average number of cable channels carried in American households was 60. "Now it's between 100 and 105, covering about 75 percent of all TV sets in America," Ebersol says.
"I remember I watched all the coverage in 1972 because there was nothing else on," says Robert J. Thompson, a Syracuse University professor and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television in the Newhouse School. "Now, four years after Sydney, we've got satellite and digital cable, 12 other sporting events at any given time," all competing for viewers.
But with Ebersol's plan, Thompson added "it's very clever what they've managed to do, suturing a coalition together of smaller audiences, besides the major networks, to sell more advertising time and stop the ratings hemorrhage. They're finally trying to come up with a business model of how to live in a multichannel universe."
The cable channels that have been carrying the Olympics have enjoyed enormous increases in viewership in the time periods when they are telecasting the Games. MSNBC, for instance, is averaging 472,000 Olympics viewers, a more than 200 percent increase over what the network had averaged in the same time periods the previous two weeks. USA Network is up 37 percent in its Olympic time periods, with an average audience of 748,000. CNBC and Bravo have seen similar spikes. Adding up all of the cable and NBC network coverage through Wednesday, 196 million people have caught at least a glimpse of the Olympics, which NBC says puts them in line to become the most-sampled overseas Summer Games ever.
That has allowed NBC to sell more commercial time over the past week. The network, which paid $793 million for the rights to the Athens Games, had predicted a profit of almost $50 million. Now it says that figure will be between $60 million and $70 million.
NBC has televised every Summer Games since Seoul in 1988. In 1995, Ebersol landed the network rights to every Olympics until 2008. Last year, he signed deals for the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and the 2012 Olympics, which will not be awarded to a city until next summer.
That means NBC and General Electric have tied up almost $6 billion in rights for an exclusive run of seven consecutive Olympics. "We all believe this is the best deal of our lives," Ebersol says.
The Olympics are the only American sports extravaganza Ebersol has left. In January 1998, NBC gave up football. Baseball was gone by late September 2000. In summer 2002, the network decided the broadcast rights to the post-Michael Jordan NBA would cost too much to be profitable.
"I loved and still love all of those sports, but the price of admission was too high for me," Ebersol says. "I'm in the business to make money, and you can't make money in those sports anymore, as evidenced by the big financial write-downs that some of our competitors have had to absorb."
Besides, Ebersol says, "I don't care what people say about Olympic ratings -- it's the last single event that puts the whole family together in front of the television set. Normally, in the case of Dad, his favorite team is on regional cable. Mom is watching a prime-time soap opera like 'ER.' The kids are down the hall watching MTV or playing video games.
"The Olympics, at one time or another, grabs all of them."