NBC Olympics boss confident in security in Sochi and that primetime ratings won't be hurt by live coverage

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Image Credit: NBC

With exactly two weeks until NBC begins its primetime coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi — competition begins Feb. 6, the day before the Opening Ceremony — more than 900 employees are already in Russia, with another 1,400 on the way. They’ve seen an unprecedented amount of security, NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel told reporters on a conference call Jan. 23.

“You don’t get into the Olympic Park and you don’t get into an Olympic venue without what’s called a spectator pass, which is the equivalent of a credential, which means everybody who’s been issued one has been background checked,” he said.

The volume of surveillance, he added, seems larger than any prior Olympics, winter or summer, including the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, which took place five months after 9/11: “Unlike most Olympics, the footprint of this Olympics is essentially two locations — the coastal cluster, where all the indoor venues are, and the mountain cluster, where all the outdoor venues are. They’re very confined and very compact. So there really is a perimeter that the Russians, as everybody has now seen, have overlaid just a tremendous security force.”

As for coverage, NBC Olympics executive producer Jim Bell is planning 1,539 hours of programming — which is more than the total for the Vancouver and Torino Winter Olympics combined. (It helps that there are 12 new events.) All events will be live-streamed on NBCOlympics.com, with those feeds starting again at 3 p.m. daily, which means you have two opportunities to watch before prime time. According to research from the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, people who were live-streaming during the day were actually more likely to watch more Olympics television at night. “The lesson from London, anyway, was simply that more meant more,” Bell said. “Not only did it not cannibalize, it also helped us grow audience on television. This will be the first time we’re doing it at a Winter Games, and we’re hopeful for a similar result.”

He’s also hoping that research holds true when it comes to their decision to broadcast figure skating live on the cable channel NBCSN during the day before packaging it for prime time on NBC. “That was a big decision,” Bell admitted. “Not that we want to hurt the productivity of the workplace, but we hope that people are gathered around and watching and talking about it and then going [home] and gathering around the tube with their family to watch it in prime time.” It’s an opportunity to build an audience for NBCSN, Bell said. “We want to take that chance here, and we think figure skating makes the most sense because it’s one of the marquee sports, it goes on for an extended period of time throughout the whole Olympics, and it’s weather-proof in that it’s not subject to a snow event.”

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