NBC today kicks off its most ambitious Olympics coverage ever in Sochi, airing the Winter Games across NBC, NBC Sports Network, USA, MSNBC, and CNBC (Curling, Nothing But Curling). Its planned 1,539 hours of coverage outstrips its Vancouver and Torino coverage combined, and Kantar Media has forecast NBC’s Sochi-palooza will result in a whopping 5,500 minutes of Olympics TV ad time. The Sochi Olympics also are expected to be real barn-burner, ratings-wise — but for reasons that might unravel NBC’s larger Games Goals. Security concerns — the big story so far in Sochi — are expected to drive up ratings, as some viewers tune in to see if anything bad happens. “If anything, the prospect of a terrorist event, the controversy of [Russia's] anti-gay laws — those things in an odd way have increased awareness and interest in those games,” Bob Costas, NBC’s primetime Olympics host, acknowledged to reporters during a recent news conference. He added, “Obviously, we have our fingers crossed that nothing happens.”
That kind of Must See TV, however, may not mesh up with NBC’s long-held belief the Olympics are the perfect platform off of which to promote, and launch, new programming. The broadcast network plans to premiere two new primetime comedies — About A Boy and Growing Up Fisher — following Olympics coverage on Saturday, February 22, and the Closing Ceremony on Sunday, February 23, respectively. But by far NBC’s biggest play will be its debut of its Jimmy Fallon-hosted Tonight Show, making its much-ballyhooed return to New York City. Fallon will debut as host immediatly after Games coverage during NBC’s second week of Sochi coverage: The first week of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon will air at midnight; on Monday, February 24, it moves back to the franchise’s earlier, regular timeslot, followed by the premiere of Late Show With Seth Meyers. According to outgoing Tonight Show host Jay Leno, NBC moved up its planned hand-over in order to feed Fallon the huge Olympics audience.
But will Olympics viewers be in the mood for comedy? Leading up to the Games, they’ve been pounded with reports about the dangers in Sochi, where Islamist militants have vowed to strike. A report on the eve of today’s first Games broadcasts, the Department of Homeland Security alerted airlines flying to Russia about toothpaste and cosmetics tubes that might be hiding explosive substances — news that led newscasts around the dial. Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments to news outlets that anybody who wants to go to the Olympics should go, may not have done enough to keep up spirits of viewers chilled by a report last month that a so-called “black widow” terrorist might have slipped past Russian president Vladimir Putin’s “Ring of Steel,” including an estimated 40,000 security stationed around Games venues. And more recent broadcasts of a video, in which two guys thought to be suicide bombers in December’s twin bombings in Volgograd said, “We’ve prepared a present for you and all tourists who’ll come over. If you will hold the Olympics you’ll get a present from us for the Muslim blood that’s been spilled,” is not the kind of Games walk-up news report to which U.S. viewers are accustomed.
“The most dangerous Olympics I’ve experienced,” former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell told CBS This Morning. “Too much of a risk,” chimed in Rep. Peter King, R-NY, a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, on CNN’s AC360, adding, “probably less than 50/50 — but that’s pretty high when you’re talking about a terrorist attack.” NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel already has been reporting from the area; NBC Nightly News and Today also will be originating from Sochi.
Despite the heightened sense of uncertainty, NBC went ahead and made programming plans based on its standard Olympics Launchpad Playbook. “That’s one of the reasons we have the Olympics, is to promote our primetime lineup,” Greenblatt explained to TV critics last month. “To get that kind of audience for two weeks… to raise the level of awareness on something, to have the Olympics help us do that, is really valuable for us.” He has promised that this time the network will not interrupt any coverage for comedy-show unveiling. During the London Games, when the network interrupted the Closing Ceremony to squeeze in a commercial-free episode of its new Animal Practice, fans’ reaction was merciless on Twitter at #NBCfail and #closingceremonies.
Asked in a recent conference call with reporters what was his “confidence level” with regard to security in Sochi, NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel replied, “Confident.” It was the second question asked on that phoner. Security at Sochi also was Question 5. And Question 8.
“I think we all know… we are in for an interesting ride,” Today anchor Matt Lauer forecast.