How NBC Prepares Its Olympic Reality Show

The Sochi Winter Games have yet to begin, but NBC is already preparing one of the most important elements of its coverage.

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The Sochi Winter Games have yet to begin, but NBC is already preparing one of the most important elements of its coverage. The network, which pays over $1 billion every two years for the rights to broadcast the Olympics, is preparing about 50 pre-produced "packages" of athlete-centered content, for those moments when the Games (and television viewers) need a little punching up. The packages, previewed by Capital New York on Wednesday, are slickly edited and finely crafted to resemble the manufactured drama of any good reality show. 

As Capital explains, the pre-produced segments have long defined NBC's coverage of the Games. This year, about 60 percent of the segments will look at American athletes, with about 40 percent covering international competitors. It's formulaic, but effective: this year's segments include an explainer on Russian ballet and figure skating, and a tear-jerker on a Canadian skier with a physically handicapped sibling. NBC has a history of repackaging the athletic competitions themselves in the name of ratings, and it doesn't always go over well. During 2012's opening ceremony, for instance, the network cut away from a tribute to the victims of the 7/7 terror attacks in London in order to air Ryan Seacrest's interview with Michael Phelps, the most marketable (and American) star going into those games.

A lot of NBC's coverage is designed as a work-around to the time difference between the host country and the U.S. audience. Sochi's schedule isn't really prime-time friendly — most event will happen during the pre-dawn hours in America — so NBC has to find work arounds. Although the network has 1,500 hours of live coverage of the Games planned, a lot of that will be online. And NBC won't livestream the Opening Ceremonies at all. Instead, they'll broadcast it eight hours later, at 7:30 p.m. Eastern on Friday, Feb. 7.

NBC used to do this with all of the big events — hold and edit the competition, and then show a "curated" version of the event during its most lucrative hours — but this year they're trying something new. Viewers will see the unedited footage of the Games as they happen, live, either online or on one of the company's cluster of stations. Then, in the evening, NBC will air the reality show version — the edited, packaged, most dramatic way of looking at what happened earlier in the day. The network has also planned some stand-alone documentaries, like one on the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding incident, which happened 20 years ago this winter. In an interview with Variety, NBC Universal's president of research and media development Alex Wurtzel explained that their research showed live broadcasts only increased the audience's appetite to get more context later.

Although NBC might try to anticipate as much as possible about the storyline of Games in advance, it can't guess at everything. 2014's games have been particularly good at exposing that imperfection in the Olympics reality show, as a handful of high-profile athletes will miss, or nearly missed, this year's Olympiad. Skier Lindsey Vonn, probably the Winter Games' most marketable competitor, won't be there because of an injury. The athlete already had promotional deals with a number of sponsors, and was part of NBC's marketing of their coverageThe network very nearly lost out on what many saw as its post-Vonn backup plan, too: Ashley Wagner only made it on Team USA after the United States Figure Skating federation decided to send her instead of Mirai Nagasu, even though Nagasu soundly beat her at nationals. Without insisting on causality here, it's interesting to note that like Vonn, Wagner was a huge part of NBC's Olympics commercials, and came with a number of lucrative sponsorship deals. 

By the looks of things, NBC will have a number of breakout stars to show to American audiences during this year's games. Take the Barnes twins. Tracy and Lanny Barnes both compete in the winter biathlon. Tracy was on the U.S. Olympic team in 2006, and qualified for the 2014 team. Her sister, Lanny, narrowly missed qualifying after a serious illness took her out of some crucial competitions. So Tracy gave up her spot on the team, meaning that the next place athlete, Lanny, would get to go to Sochi. Earlier, The Wire took a shot at guessing some of NBC's other potential stars. You can look at those (and their GIFs), here. And there's always the unexpected underdog who haven't met yet, that will inevitably emerge out of nowhere to steal the world's heart. Luckily, the network is taking plenty of editing machines with them.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.