By Rachel Cohen
Prime-time television coverage of the Winter Olympics will start a day early next year in Sochi — with Shaun White the likely star.
NBC will air events the night before the opening ceremony, the first time a U.S. broadcaster has done so. On Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, viewers will see team figure skating, women’s freestyle moguls and White’s event, slopestyle snowboarding, for both the men and women.
“We think (it) is a great precursor to the opening ceremonies and has a large value to our distributors, to our advertisers,” NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus said at a news conference Tuesday, a year and one day before the Sochi Olympics launch. “And we think the appetite for the fans and the consumers and the viewers will be there.”
With 12 new events for Sochi, including team figure skating and slopestyle, the International Olympic Committee needed to expand the length of the games. And since Thursdays are always a big night for TV viewership, NBC was happy to get a head start.
Some Olympic competitions have been held before the opening ceremony in the past, but this is the first time an American TV network has started its prime-time coverage early. NBC will go from 17 to 18 nights of telecasts.
Lazarus expects the Sochi Olympics — NBC’s first since extending its contract in 2011 — to be profitable, unlike the last Winter Games in Vancouver. The network unexpectedly broke even for last summer’s Olympics and is riding a streak of strong ratings for the 2008 Beijing, 2010 Vancouver and 2012 London Games.
Sochi serves up some time zone and familiarity challenges those last three Olympics did not. Few Americans had heard of the Black Sea resort before it won hosting rights, and it will be eight or nine hours ahead of the East Coast of the U.S. (depending on Russia’s decision whether to use daylight-saving time).
NBC will again stream every event live online as it did for London, making this the first Winter Games for which fans can enjoy that option. The network drew criticism last summer for not airing more high-profile sports live on TV during the day, especially on weekends, instead holding them for tape-delayed broadcasts in prime time. For Sochi, NBC executives are considering whether to televise more marquee competitions live, then
still run them back at night — encouraged by the fact the Internet streams seemed to only boost prime-time viewership, not hurt it.
Nearly all the hockey — including U.S. men’s and women’s games and the medal rounds — will be televised live. Lazarus is optimistic that the NHL and union will decide to allow the world’s best players to compete in Sochi.
The overall U.S. team looks strong again, always a major factor in ratings. Even Tuesday’s bad news on the slopes could eventually prove positive for NBC: One of the biggest American stars, skier Lindsey Vonn, tore ligaments in her right knee. But if she returns for Sochi as hoped, her story could be more appealing than ever.
NBC’s research so far suggests strong interest in the Sochi Games. The network measures Americans’ “intent to view,” NBC Sports Group chief marketing officer John Miller said, and right now it’s hovering around 75 percent for next year’s Olympics. Similar metrics for London showed about 70 percent, with Beijing and Vancouver in the mid to low 60s.
“The 70s is off the charts high,” Miller said.