NBC's Rio Olympics Producer: "We're Fine" in Face of Zika, Body Parts and Doping

Rio Olympics Faces Fears of Zika, Body Parts and Doping -illo-H 2016
llustration By Travis Millard

"It's OK," says lead producer Jim Bell of the hurdles in covering the first Games in South America as ad sales hit $1.2 billion (and counting) and ratings could set records if (if!) all goes well.

The curtain comes up Aug. 5 on NBCUniversal's $1.2 billion Rio Summer Olympics, and executives at owner Comcast are banking that once the Games begin, the global interest in the competition finally will supplant the drumbeat of negative headlines that have plagued the first Olympics in South America. "We don't expect that there will be an Olympics in our lifetimes where we can just show up and there won't be anything to worry about," concedes Jim Bell, NBC Olympics executive producer. Bell made nearly a dozen trips to Rio before these Games, his 11th at NBC but the first to contend with fears of the Zika virus and crime so bad, there have been reports of body parts washing up on Copacabana Beach. "We try to be fully transparent with our employees and just take these problems and handle them the smartest way we can. I feel reasonably good that we've done that here with these issues and people are aware." He adds with a laugh, "It's OK, we're fine."

NBC Sports chief Mark Lazarus says "very few" of his division's 2,000-plus employees have declined to travel to Rio; Today anchor Savannah Guthrie, who is five months' pregnant, is the most high-profile network star not attending. And with ISIS-inspired "lone wolf" attacks on the rise, authorities in Brazil have deployed more than 85,000 security personnel to patrol Olympic venues.

NBC's news properties have covered the problems swirling around the Rio Olympics extensively, including the Russian doping scandal and unfinished infrastructure. And in an unusual move, NBC Sports will present a one-hour primetime special Aug. 4 that will dive deeper. Lead Olympics host Bob Costas, who has a history of not sugarcoating the real-world issues that often intrude on sports, will anchor the special, which also will include a primer on some of the athletes expected to break out in Rio. "What we're seeking here is a balance and to [address] these things that people are talking about," says Bell. "The night of the opening ceremony is really about the athletes, and to wade into Zika and water pollution on that night doesn't seem right."

NBCUniversal will broadcast more than 6,700 hours of coverage across 11 platforms and 4,500-plus hours of live streaming. Issues aside, NBCU executives are anticipating blockbuster ratings thanks to an advantageous time zone (Rio is one hour ahead of New York). Of course, NBC Sports execs also are known to flex their muscles with the IOC to ensure maximum viewership; in Beijing in 2008, then-NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol persuaded the IOC to schedule the swimming events in the morning so U.S. viewers would see Michael Phelps live. And this time, sources say NBC asked organizers to alter the order of the Parade of Nations so Team USA would come later to keep audiences engaged throughout the four-and-a-half-hour opening ceremony Aug. 5. (The IOC declined.) More than 40 million viewers watched the London opening in 2012.

NBCU already has booked close to $1.2 billion in national ad dollars, hitting the critical $1 billion mark in April. And that figure likely will go up as the network books more advertising during the Games; NBC took in $1.2 billion during the entire London Olympics. With several returning stars (Phelps, Usain Bolt) and some new faces (gymnast Simone Biles), NBC is guaranteeing a household rating similar to London's 17.5; the network made about $120 million in profit on London. NBCU CEO Steve Burke told analysts July 27, "We are going to make a lot more than that in Rio."

Three industry issues to monitor during NBC's coverage of the Rio Olympics:

1. Corporate Synergy

The Games provide Comcast properties with a sustained promotional platform over 17 days, perfect for plugging top-priority projects and people. For NBC News, it's Billy Bush, who will be introduced as the newest member of the Today team. Comcast will push its next generation set-top box X1 (40 percent of Comcast's 22 million customers now have one) with a special Rio menu that will allow users to access all 6,755 hours of programming. NBC's entertainment division seems to have learned the lesson that hyping unproven shows only squanders a rich opportunity. (Jimmy Fallon's The Tonight Show was the exception out of Sochi in 2014; Growing Up Fisher and About a Boy could not maintain the huge borrowed audience. And recall the awkward premiere of Animal Practice in the middle of the closing ceremony at London? NBC apologized after viewers went, well, apeshit over the interruption.) This time, returning series Superstore and The Voice — both in a much better position to capitalize on the lift — will get prime post-Olympic slots.

2. Social Media's Impact

The global interest and live experience of the Olympics make it a magnet for complaints on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms about everything from the curated primetime coverage to the focus on warm profiles of American athletes at the (perceived) expense of international competitors. "I know the narrative on the profiles," counters Bell. "It's a little tired. I think the pieces are great. There's still nothing like the beautifully crafted three- or four-minute piece; you're not going to connect with an athlete by reading a tweet." But as annoying as some of the criticism can be, NBC executives say they welcome the "feedback" from the social media-verse. "It's like anything else — tone matters," laughs Bell. "Occasionally that medium doesn't always lend itself to civility. But when it does, it can actually be a very useful tool."

3. Who's There (And Who Isn't)

The Olympic committee expects 500,000 visitors to Rio, about on par with other Games. (They'll be joined by such nonworking NBCU execs as film chiefs Jeff Shell and Ron Meyer and NBCU-affiliated talent like producer Jason Blum.) As for the athletes, the direst predictions of no-shows have not materialized, save for golfers. The world's top four male players (Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Speith and Rory McIlroy) pulled out citing Zika concerns, though the women's field remains strong (only 39th-ranked Lee-Anne Pace is missing). But the return of the sport to the Games for the first time since 1904 was to be a major opportunity for NBCU-owned Golf Channel to shine. David Feherty, the network's biggest star, shrugs off the exodus. "Fifty or 75 or 100 years from now, people won't remember who didn't play in the 2016 Olympics in terms of golf. They'll just remember that someone was a gold medalist," he says. "These guys get to play in four majors a year. They get to play in one Olympics now every four years. Major championships make your career. Maybe an Olympic medal makes you immortal."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.