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NBC boss bullish on big audiences, great stories - and Canada Add to ...


While Olympic host broadcaster NBC expects to lose money televising the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, it also anticipates near record-setting audience numbers. Who knows, if a couple of figure skaters come to blows, the ratings could go through the roof.

NBC sports boss Dick Ebersol says he would never hope for such a thing. But nor will he ever forget how the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding soap opera drove viewership numbers for the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994 to never-before-seen levels.

"You could never wish for something like that to happen again," said Mr. Ebersol, who has unfolded his six-foot-five-inch frame on a leather couch in his temporary office at the International Broadcast Centre in Vancouver. "It can turn on you and people eventually get sick of something that is wrong and bad.

"But at the time, people were captivated. They wanted to see if Tonya [or surrogates]was going to take another whack at poor Nancy Kerrigan. It had NFL-like ratings for figure skating practices." When it comes to television and the Olympics, Mr. Ebersol is the Zen master. He has produced eight Olympic broadcasts and played prominent roles in three others. He revolutionized the way the Games are covered, focusing on the athletes' personal stories rather than simply on the competitions themselves. Far more women watch the Olympics than men, he said, and they enjoy the often inspiring back stories of the competitors.

Many consider him a broadcasting genius - he was an original producer of Saturday Night Live. Others have less complimentary terms to describe what he's done for television. But no one can deny his legendary status in the game.

With those bona fides, it's worth noting that Mr. Ebersol is quite bullish about the Games in Vancouver. "This is only the second Winter Olympics in history that will have over 200 million watching - only Lillehammer had more," he said.

And we know why.

With those kinds of viewership projections, you would expect NBC to be rubbing its hands with financial glee. It isn't. As mentioned, the network is expecting to lose $200-million because, according to The Man, negotiations with advertisers took place amid a profound recessionary environment. Companies were willing to buy ads, he said, but not at prices NBC was asking.

"They reached a line in the sand and they said 'that's it,' we're not going to pay over it," Mr. Ebersol said.

He doesn't think it reflects, as some do, a loss of faith in the Olympics as a vehicle to sell products. The Beijing Olympics, he said, was the most watched event in television history. He just thinks that in today's fiscal environment, with everyone preaching restraint, companies are taking a firmer stand on what they spend and how they spend it.

The penny-pinching philosophy may last for years.

Having said that, he believes NBC's coverage of these Games will be among the best it has produced - the first in high definition. And he said that of the eight Olympic productions he's orchestrated, this has so far run the smoothest.

"Please say that I knocked on wood as I said that," Mr. Ebersol laughed.

But he does credit the uninterrupted and predictable leadership at VANOC and in the provincial government for a relationship has been relatively issue free.

"I'm not choosing sides or anything, I'm just saying that in all my experience, I've never been able to work with the same three guys leading the project from start to finish," Mr. Ebersol said. "I mean, that is until we lost Jack last fall, which was horrible." The three being Jack Poole, the former chair of VANOC who died of cancer last October, CEO John Furlong and B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell.

"I just can't tell you what a difference that makes," he said. "Just from a stability standpoint and knowing what and who you're dealing with and what to expect. It makes a huge difference." Mr. Ebersol is not surprised there is a certain amount of apprehension in the city on the eve of the Games. It happens at every Olympics he's been too. Then the Games open, the party and competition begins, and the anxieties begin to disappear.

"That's what will happen here," he said. "Guarantee it." Like many, he's predicting Canada will be a dominant presence on the medal podium.

"I'll be shocked if you're not first, second or third overall when it's over," he said. "And it probably won't be later than Sunday when you'll be off the schnide and you get your first gold on home soil. That should be quite a moment."

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