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NBC delays big events until prime time

As in every Olympics, NBC's coverage of the Turin Games has some new wrinkles.

Dick Button, best known for his figure skating analysis when ABC was the Olympic network, has joined NBC and will be the analyst for the pairs competition. He's also a co-host of a new 6 p.m. nightly show, "Olympic Ice," on USA Network that will showcase the most popular sport in the Winter Games.

With the number of HDTV sets increasing, NBC is simulcasting its regular network coverage on its HDTV channel instead of running different coverage on it.

But one thing remains the same. As usual when the Games are played in Europe, viewers won't see anything live on NBC's prime-time programs, which start when it is 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. in Turin. And MSNBC, CNBC and USA -- NBC's cable channels -- won't carry prestigious events such as figure skating or skiing live because they will be saved for prime time.

Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports and NBC Olympics, explained to television critics in California last month that advertisers, affiliates and viewers support the decision to show the big events when more people are available to watch them.

"Over 90 percent of [viewers] say they're available in prime time and at no other point during the day," said Ebersol. "And that all comes down to everybody wants to see it in prime time."

Well, "everybody" is a bit of an exaggeration. Some viewers in this 2 4/7 world probably wish that NBC would follow the Canadian TV model of carrying events live and repackaging them for taped prime-time coverage for those viewers who can't see them as they happen.

But showing the events live could hurt prime-time ratings, which would cut the amount of advertising revenue that NBC takes in to offset its $613 million rights fee. And with the network in a bigger slump than the Buffalo Bills these days, every dollar counts.

Let's count the 10 most frequently asked questions about TV and the Olympics:

>Question: Why does NBC believe America can't wait for Friday's opening?

Answer: "I think our country is going through some pretty tough times, some pretty negative times," said Ebersol, noting the Iraqi war, the economy and scandals in Washington. "I think America is just going to embrace these kids, their positive attitude, their winning performances."

>Q: Why is NBC calling them the Torino Games instead of the Turin Games?

A: Ebersol likes the way "Torino" sounds. "It just rolls off your mouth," said Ebersol. "It talks about a wonderful part of the world. It has a romanticism to it."

>Q: Why isn't Katie Couric doing the Opening Ceremonies with Bob Costas?

A: It wants to showcase "Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams. NBC denies it but Couric's absence is another indication that the network fears Couric will become the anchor of "The CBS Evening News" after her contract ends and compete with Williams.

>Q: How is CBC covering the Games?

A: It plans 304 hours of coverage (NBC and its affiliates plan 418) and is the host broadcaster for hockey and curling. Most of its daytime coverage will be live. Live events like the men's downhill Sunday can air as early as 6 a.m., which is noon in Turin. CBC can carry events this way partly because its rights fee is a fraction of what NBC is paying. Prime-time host Brian Williams (not to be confused with NBC's Brian Williams) will do the Opening Ceremonies live at 1 p.m. Friday, then head back to Toronto to host the rest of the Games and save money.

>Q: When will other TV outlets be able to televise highlights?

A: Don't expect to see Channel 2's Ed Kilgore show any same-day performances. Ebersol said highlights can be shown after the last prime-time telecast is over on the West Coast, which would be 2:30 a.m. in Buffalo.

>Q: How much of NBC's cable coverage will be live?

A: According to Molly Solomon, the coordinating producer of the Olympics, 75 percent of the 233 hours of coverage on CNBC, MSNBC and the USA Network will be live. That includes all 54 men's and women's hockey games, which will be carried by MSNBC on weekdays, CNBC on the weekends. The games involving U.S. teams will be carried on USA Network.

>Q: How will viewers know where and when events are being carried?

A: As it did for the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, NBC will carry periodic pop-ups that describe the menu of what is coming. You also can visit, check the TV Guide channel or save the listing below.

>Q: How are the Americans going to do in the skating events?

A: Button likes their chances. "We've got one of the greatest ladies of all time in Sasha Cohen," he said. He added the new judging system in skating -- which he'll undoubtedly explain extensively on "Olympic Ice" -- makes it difficult to predict how Michelle Kwan will do.

>Q: How will the Bode Miller story be covered?

A: Extensively. Miller's controversial comments on "60 Minutes" that suggested he skied in competition hung over have heightened his visibility.

"The idea that he's out there drinking and skiing every day or every week is absurd," said Ebersol. "The amazing thing about Bode is that unlike anybody else skiing today, he's going to ski all five disciplines during the Games -- the downhill, the Super G, the giant slalom and the downhill combined. So he'll be a story through the entirety of the games."

>Q: Why does Costas think the Games will be a popular TV event again?

A: Would you believe, he is counting on the supposed lack of hype. "It's just a hunch on my part [that] right now in America, no matter how much you enjoy a given sport, you have to get to the point where you say, 'enough already,' " said Costas. "It gets to the point of overkill, where some of the mystique and the romance and the anticipation. . . . has been drained out of it.

"In the United States, most viewers don't pay all that much attention to skiers and skaters and lugers and the skeleton competitors until the Olympics arrive, and I think that gives us a freshness."

It is hard to argue with that assessment. After all, NBC has even managed to make the old city of "Torino" sound fresh again.


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