NBC Olympics EP Defends Tape Delay, Opening Ceremony Edits and 'Today' Ratings

21. Jim Bell
Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Executive producer of Today

As the EP of Today -- all 23-hours-a-week of it -- Bell puts on more news programming than anyone else in town. The show remains NBC News' cash cow, having brought in a half-billion dollars in ad revenue last year, but it's also the most important destination on telelvision for authors, Hollywood celebrities and other boldface names who depend on it to sell their wares.

"We can understand and appreciate that people are passionate about things," says Jim Bell. "I think the numbers speak for themselves."

For the first all-tape-delayed primetime Olympics in the age of social media, 140-character brickbats are inevitable. And certainly some of the criticism NBC is facing for its coverage of the Games in London -- which is five hours ahead of the U.S. on the East Coast, making live events in primetime impossible -- is ameliorated by the network’s record-breaking primetime ratings. More than 35 million people have been watching the primetime coverage that has inspired a rash of derogatory Twitter hashtags including #NBCfail.

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“It gets a little noisy and loud out there,” Jim Bell, executive producer of NBC’s Olympic coverage, told The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday. “Given the economic realities of what’s involved here, of course we’re going to do everything we can to serve the audience. We can understand and appreciate that people are passionate about things. I think the numbers speak for themselves.”

NBC is streaming each event and medal ceremony live. And there is will be more than 5,000 hours of content, some of it live, on NBC and its various cable networks. But marquee events like Ryan Lochte’s gold medal finish in the 400-meter individual medley July 28 -- during which he dusted teammate Michael Phelps -- aren't being shown on television until NBC’s primetime broadcast. (The race was swum at about 3:30 p.m. ET.)

NBCUniversal paid $1.2 billion for the rights to broadcast London Games. And while analysts predicted a loss of as much as $200 million, CEO Steve Burke said on an earnings call Wednesday that the higher than expected tune-in for London (which has eclipsed the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where many events were shown live in primetime) is likely to help the company break even on London.

The network also took considerable heat for editing out a somber performance of a Christian hymn based on a 17th century poem during the Opening Ceremony and replacing it with a shorter Ryan Seacrest interview with Phelps. The song and accompanying video wall of deceased loved ones -- including Opening Ceremony director Danny Boyle’s father -- has been interpreted as a tribute to the victims of the July 7, 2005, London Underground terror attacks, though the London Olympics media guide makes no such distinction. Nevertheless, the fracas started in the British press and quickly jumped the pond, where countless U.S. media outlets weighed in. And by July 30, Jon Stewart was opening his Comedy Central show with his own slam of the network.

“It was never, in countless meetings, explained to us as having anything to do with or any connection to 7/7,” said Bell. “Had that been the case, that it was tribute, we would never have left it out. But it wasn’t meant to be a tribute. It was disappointing to see that misconception spread.”

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The six-minute song-and-dance performance was edited out as a result of time consideration and also for its lack of resonance for U.S. viewers. Bell noted that producers were under increasing time pressure to fit the Opening Ceremony into a three-hour broadcast window that also includes commercial breaks.

“We’re sitting there at 12:30 in the morning in London, that’s 7:30 in the United States,” said Bell. "We’re on the air and we’re having to make decisions in real time."

On most days, Bell and his team are at the Olympic village broadcast center by 11 a.m. By about 9 p.m. London time, they are beginning to assemble that night’s primetime coverage. They don’t leave until 5 a.m. the following morning. The Herculean production effort pays dividends, exposing NBC’s new fall series to millions of potential viewers, and Bell contends it is re-energizing the Today team -- which could use a reset button after an awkward anchor transition from Ann Curry to Savannah Guthrie last month. 

“The Olympics provide a really unique opportunity for Today,” said Bell, who continues to be the morning show’s executive producer. “The ability to get out on the road with the team together and spend time like that, it’s very special. And I think the Today show has been doing a great job here.”

Monday’s broadcast was watched by 5.9 million viewers, and 5.7 million tuned in Tuesday, marking week-over-week ratings increases of 49 percent and 30 percent, respectively.

And Bell took issue with a front-page story in Tuesday’s New York Daily News that asserted that Hoda Kotb, co-host of the fourth hour of Today with Kathie Lee Gifford, was dispatched to London because “audiences weren’t digging” Guthrie.

“That one really surprised me,” said Bell, noting that the plan to send Kotb to London was announced on the fourth hour of Today (complete with a cartoon version of a London-bound Kotb packing gold medals into a suitcase). “There is no fourth hour [of Today] during the Olympics because the Olympic programming starts at 10 a.m. so that we can show so much live programming to all those people who want to see the Olympics live, by the way."

And then Bell doled out some brickbats of his own: “It’s embarrassing for the Daily News to have done that. It was wrong and sloppy. It’s just total crap.”

Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com; Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie