NBC Sports Pledges Its Support for the Paralympics in Sochi, Rio de Janeiro

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U.S. Paralympic Team

The gold medal showdown between the U.S. and Russian sled hockey teams was aired live Saturday morning on NBC, as the network plans for increased coverage in 2016.

NBC rounded up 10 days of coverage for the Paralympics last weekend that boasted 52 hours of broadcasting and culminated in a gold medal victory over Russia for the U.S. sled hockey team, which was aired live on NBC Saturday morning.

The unprecedented boost in television coverage for the games that, like the Winter Olympics last month, were held in Sochi, was prompted both by the huge success of the Paralympic games in London in 2012 and by the support of corporate sponsors.

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"It has been a great experience as well as a great television event," Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics, tells The Hollywood Reporter

"Coming out of London was a watershed moment for the Paralympics. There was a huge audience awareness and interest, especially in the U.S," said Zenkel.

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"We got together with the U.S. Olympic Committee and said we both need to find a way to broaden the coverage of this event," he explains. "What it needed was resources, so we went to many of the U.S. Olympic Committee sponsors and found a very receptive audience -- we got six sponsors [BMW, BP, Citi, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Procter & Gamble and The Hartford] who were willing and enthusiastic of our coverage, and that gave us the opportunity to broaden it to these 50-plus hours that are now fully streamed on the USOC website.

Zenkel says that the ratings have "met expectations, [although] there isn't a lot of history to compare it to, as we did five and a half hours in London. On our cable network, we saw 60 percent higher, and on NBC, close to 40 percent higher," he explains. "There is a lot more buzz, and our coverage has something to do with that, but so do these great stories.

"We have been in the Olympics business for decades and have always covered the Paralympics in bits and pieces," and with the increased interest commercially, "we have fortunately seized on that and found a diamond in the rough with this amazing event that is full of incredible human interest stories to tell. I don't have any doubt that this is the beginning of an event that will continue to grow in terms of interest and coverage."

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The Paralympics feature athletes with a wide range of disabilities, such as paralysis, traumatic brain injury and loss of limbs, competing in all the major winter sports, including downhill skiing, ice skating, hockey, curling, biathlon and introducing snowboarding for the first time. 

Over recent years there has been an increase in those returning from war, and "there is no question that war veterans around the world have raised the level of nationalist interest in this event," says Zenkel. "We are so supportive of our wounded veterans, and this is a way to celebrate their incredible spirit, which is true of all of these athletes." 

One of the veterans who has stood out this year in Sochi is Heath Calhoun, "a sit-skier who is a retired army staff sergeant and lost both of his legs [in Iraq], and he won a Purple Heart," NBC on-site reporter Lewis Johnson tells THR

"He goes all out. His eyes welled up when he won that silver medal," reveals Johnson. "There are several veterans with a real strong sense of pride who have served in the military and are now representing the flag. Their teammates really look up to them for that," he adds. 

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Another athlete to watch both in the 2014 Paralympic Games and beyond is Amy Purdy, a snowboarder who won the bronze medal in the snowboard cross on Friday and will next take to the stage on Dancing With the Stars. "She has done a lot for action sports and was really instrumental in trying to get snowboard cross into the Paralympics, as well as introducing disabled athletes to action sports." 

With the DWTS premiere on Monday, Purdy's partner, Derek Hough, even flew out to Sochi to rehearse their moves. "I heard they turned a room here into a ballroom to practice," said Johnson.

Following the success of Sochi, Zenkel tells THR that NBC intends to increase its coverage even more for Rio de Janeiro in 2016. "We have plans to cover between 60 and 70 hours, but it is too early to finalize that," he says.

Adds Zenkel, "My sense is that coming out of these Paralympics there will be greater awareness, and we'll go back into the marketplace. Hopefully we will see even greater support and have higher audience numbers to demonstrate the interest. We are just scratching the surface and will continue to grow."