Kurtz, Howard, Newsweek
Byline: Howard Kurtz
Don't like gymnastics? NBC is betting you'll watch the Olympics anyway.
Jim Bell was an unemployed football coach in Spain, not long out of Harvard, when NBC hired him as a glorified gofer for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. His assignment was to shepherd around an injured executive confined to a wheelchair. "I picked him up and slung him over my shoulder," recalls the 6-foot-4 Bell. "I needed to make some money."
Dick Ebersol, the legendary producer of NBC's Olympics coverage, liked Bell's hustle and kept him on at NBC. Now Bell, who in the intervening 20 years has risen to become executive producer of the Today show, is about to run NBC's coverage of the 2012 Games in London--the network's first such telecast in two decades not orchestrated by Ebersol himself.
The challenge of broadcasting the Olympics, while vastly more complicated in the Twitter age, is much the same as the one Ebersol confronted in Barcelona: making Americans care about a wide world of sports they barely follow. From kayaking to gymnastics, from volleyball to wrestling, even the most luminous stars are largely unknown to all but the aficionados. To this day, NBC's answer to this problem remains the model that Ebersol pioneered: an elaborately constructed tableau based on drawing in viewers, especially female viewers, through the age-old power of storytelling.
The formula is deceptively simple. Ebersol specialized in weaving intricate tales of how athletes had struggled, in the arena and beyond. Men were absorbed by the stats and the outcome, but women--who make up 60 percent of the lucrative primetime audience--were drawn to the personal saga of those who get one shot at success, perhaps their only shot, every four years. Ebersol traveled around the world, meeting the athletes and drilling for narrative gold. And he distilled it to a science. Announcers were fed research to weave into play-by-play commentary. Taped reports turned the athletes into sympathetic figures with compelling back stories. Not long ago, in the run-up to the torch lighting in London, NBC Nightly News ran a piece on hurdler Lolo Jones and how her single mother held multiple jobs to feed her five kids.
Ebersol's ringmaster for the Olympics has long been sportscaster Bob Costas. At times, Costas told me, the network has "overplayed" stories about some medalist who dedicates his victory to "an 85-year-old grandmother who just died. My occasional respectful disagreement has been that amidst that, there ought to be an element of journalism and an element of commentary. There have been times we haven't done it to the extent I wished." Indeed, Costas has been known to tone down scripts he deems too purple; there is, he says, plenty of "legitimate drama" at the Games that doesn't have to be "manipulated or hyped." (Still, he defends the overall tone from the "snarky" critics who, he says, whine about "a bunch of Bob Costas sob stories.")
Bell, who says he learned "everything" from Ebersol, isn't the only new force in NBC's Olympics coverage. This is also the first Olympics for Comcast executive vice president Steve Burke, whose company bought NBC last year and soon negotiated a deal worth nearly $4.4 billion to carry the Games through 2020. "It was a scary thing," Burke says, to fly 15 staffers to Olympic headquarters in Switzerland without knowing whether he would come home empty-handed.
The other new player on the scene is Mark Lazarus, the recently installed president of NBC Sports, who was also hired by Ebersol 20 years ago. …