NBC's Gold Futures: Rio's Olympics Stars of 2016

THR Gabby Douglas - H 2015
Wesley Mann

THR Gabby Douglas - H 2015

Gymnasts "Golden" Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles are just two successful, bankable athletes the network is intensely tracking a full year away from the Games, whose ratings could help recoup its $1.2 billion investment.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Gymnast Gabby Douglas trained in relative ano­nymity until 2012, when she vaulted (and flipped and tumbled) into the spotlight with gold-medal per­formances at the London Olympics. The media instantly took to the 16-year-old with the big smile, dub­bing her "Golden Gabby" and making her a household name. "I remember being in London, and I was in a bubble," says Douglas, now 19. "I didn't know what was going on back in the States." The three years since have been a whirlwind of media appearances and magazine cover shoots. And now, as Douglas sets her sights on more gold at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, U.S. Olympics broadcaster NBC already has begun to identify its next set of break­out stars -- and to lay the programming groundwork for what always is a major TV milestone.

NBCUniversal broke even on its $1.2 billion investment in the London Games, which became the most watched event in U.S. television history with 219.4 million total viewers during its 17-day run. With another $1.2 billion invested in Rio, the broadcaster is seeking even bigger audiences next summer. Because Rio is only one time zone ahead of New York, the company will be able to air live events across multiple NBCU channels, though specifics are being ironed out.

On Aug. 5, exactly a year out from Rio's Opening Ceremony, NBCU will air a 60-second promo at 8 p.m. ET across 18 of its networks. The spot highlights the host city and reintroduces viewers to stars they watched win gold in London, including Douglas, swimmers Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin and sprinter Allyson Felix. "Mostly we are selling the excitement that people remember from the Olympics," says NBC Sports Group chief marketing officer John Miller. The marketing effort will ramp up in waves; the next big push will kick off 100 days from the start of the Games.

In November, the United States Olympic Committee will bring about 100 Olympic hopefuls to a studio in West Hollywood, where the athletes will sit for portraits and interviews NBC will use to build compelling narratives before and during the Games. "There are always a few stars that emerge from the Games that you never really quite see coming," says Miller of the early research. "Then there are people you highlight where your predictions come true." Some potential stars are easy to identify, including Simone Biles, an 18-year-old gymnast who has won all-around golds at back-to-back World Championships. Phelps' return to swimming will be a major story, says Miller, as will the attempt of Jamaica's Usain Bolt to three-peat Olympic golds in the 100- and 200-meter dashes and the 4X100-meter relay.

But even as the NBCU marketing team is pinpointing who might break out in Rio, those future stars are keeping their focus on the steps between now and then. Take Biles, who is more concerned with perfecting her balance-beam routine for the Worlds in October than whether she will return from Rio wearing gold. "We can't even think about the Olympics, even though everyone shoves it down our throats," she says. "I can't be going into Worlds thinking about the Olympics -- I don't have time to think about it."