London 2012: Olympics Will 'Revitalize' the 'Today' Show, Says NBCUniversal CEO

Steve Burke
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"The real key to turning around NBC is not necessarily increasing the investment. The real key is making better shows."

"There is nothing more important to us as the Olympics," says Steve Burke.

With 215 million viewers for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and 190 million for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the Games are among the most important events in the NBC portfolio. The Olympics don't just buoy the network’s ratings average, they also boost ad sales and provide a valuable promotional platform for the news division and the network's primetime series.

NBC has already announced plans to use the Games to launch multiple new shows (Animal Practice and Go On will get commercial-free premieres during the Games). The company also will promote the DVD release of Universal Pictures’ The Lorax. And, perhaps most significantly, the London Olympics will provide a critical and timely platform for the Today show.

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The Games have always provided NBC’s morning show with a ratings shot in the arm, but the current machinations at Today make these Games even more significant. And NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke told reporters gathered at Studio 8H (home of Saturday Night Live) for NBC’s Olympic press conference on Wednesday that the network would use the Games to “revitalize the Today show.”

The venerable morning franchise is in the throes of another transition with Savannah Guthrie set to take Ann Curry’s place as co-host of Today. Curry is likely to make the announcement about her future, which sources say will be a "substantial" role at NBC News, on Thursday’s show. Guthrie’s ascension is not expected to be part of that announcement. But NBC News executives plan to have the new Today team in place for the Games, which will also feature the return of Meredith Vieira co-hosting the opening ceremonies with Matt Lauer and Bob Costas.

Burke, who took over as CEO of NBC Universal following the 2011 merger with Comcast, noted that the Olympics “are very much tied up with the brand of NBC.” And after more than two decades of virtually continuous U.S. broadcast rights, NBC personnel have a “tremendous experience base” in presenting the Games. That’s why one of the first major investments Burke made after the merger was to wager $4.38 billion on the next four Olympics (from Sochi, Russia in 2014 through the 2020 Games). Recalling the June 2011 trip to IOC headquarters Lausanne, Switzerland, that resulted in the winning bid for that package, Burke said, “it would have been an awful thing to come home without the Games.”

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“It was a very, very long term $4 billion bet,” he added. “And we think it has a high percentage of paying off.”

NBC is on track to take in close to $1 billion in ad revenue for the London Olympics and has already booked $100 million more than the company took in four years ago for Beijing, where the extreme time difference meant that some events (particularly Michael Phelps’ gold medal-winning swimming races) could be shown live in primetime in U.S. time zones. This time, NBC will stream 3,500 hours of content live online with 5,535 hours airing across nine networks. And the increase in revenue compared to Beijing is in part a result of that additional digital content, said Seth Winter, NBC Sports executive vp sales and marketing.

Still, NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus said that the company is likely to loose money on London, which cost NBC $1.18 billion in rights fees. Analysts expect NBC to loose between $100-200 million on London. But Lazarus added that the financial forecast is “much improved from the plan we inherited at the time of the merger.”

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And Lazarus expects the next package to be profitable.

“On a long-term basis, we are confident that the deal we made for four games ending in 2020 will be a profitable deal for us when the final scores come in,” he said.

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