An Extra 30 Minutes of Olympic Coverage

By: Roger Sheppard
By: Roger Sheppard

What did NBC do from 7:30-8pm on Aug. 8, 2008 that was so important?

The 2009 Summer Olympic Games are underway in Beijing, China, and anyone who missed the opening ceremonies missed an incredible show. In an amazing mixture of new technology and ancient symbology, the Chinese managed to kick off the Games in a memorable way.

Exactly one week before the start of the Games, NBC announced that it was changing the starting time of its coverage of the opening ceremonies from 8pm ET to 7:30pm ET. NBC did not "ask" its 200+ affiliates across the U.S., of which many and some of the largest are located in the eastern time zone, if it could do this. It informed the affiliates that it WAS doing this. NBC's only been planning its coverage of these Olympics for about four years, so you can understand (not!) why a last-minute change like this was required.

When I learned of this time change, I e-mailed my contact person at NBC to inquire as to the content of this first 30-minutes. I asked her, flat out, if this first 30 minutes was going to be "BS" or actual content. She assured me there would be no BS and that the officials at NBC had determined they "had" to start the show earlier to capture everything that was going on.

This time change caused a lot of problems for many of NBC's affiliates, like WTAP. That's because the time between 7pm and 8pm each evening (known as "prime access" due to its proximity to the prime time hours of 8pm-11pm) are filled with very popular programs. In our case, and in the case of many NBC affiliates, that hour is filled by "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy," two of the longest-running and most popular game shows in the history of television. Wheel is celebrating its 25th anniversary on the air, and Jeopardy (in its latest incarnation with Alex Trebek as the host) is in the same ballpark.

What aggravated the situation even more was the fact that many stations, like WTAP, show Jeopardy in the 7:30-8pm time slot, that NBC sought to commandeer on the opening night of the Olympics. And, as luck would have it, Jeopardy was wrapping up a two-week long "Tournament of Champions" on that evening.

NBC affiliates did many things to try to deal with the situation. Some flip-flopped Wheel and Jeopardy, showing Jeopardy from 7-7:30pm and dropping Wheel altogether for that evening, since Wheel does not have returning contestants or any kind of "tournament of champions." Others moved one of the programs to a different day or time or perhaps even to a sister station. Some ignored NBC's change and showed the two programs, in sequence, exactly where large numbers of viewers expect to see them.

And so what did NBC do with that valuable 30-minute "hole" from 7:30-8pm? They filled it with lots of talk, introduced the various reporters who will be covering the Games over the next two weeks, and talked with some of the athletes. They also gave the local affiliates 10 minutes (10 minutes!) of commercial time. Of course, NBC gave the affiliates that time so late in the run-up period to the Games, it would have been difficult to have sold that extra time at any sort of premium rate.

So, NBC extended its 4-hours of coverage of the opening ceremonies to 4-1/2 hours, so its anchors and reporters could blab for 20 minutes, and inconvenience many of its affiliates and millions of TV viewers who normally expect to see other programs. What a plan!

As for having so much good content that they "had" to extend that window of time, it turns out out that the actual opening ceremonies didn't begin until -- you guessed it -- 8pm ET anyway! So, in truth, NBC needed that extra 30 minutes to showcase its reporters and to try to make sure it seized prime time viewers from other networks. NBC hoped that by starting the show at 7:30pm, viewers would get locked in to watching the entire opening ceremonies. But they didn't want to start showing the (largely pre-recorded) opening ceremonies until 8pm, just in case people were just tuning it at that time. So, NBC wanted to have its cake and eat it, too.

I don't mind that NBC wanted to do everything it could to capture eyeballs for the entire evening. Prime time viewership is very important to NBC affiliates, such as WTAP. But giving its affiliates so little notice created problems. Perhaps NBC was afraid that if it announced that time change too early, other networks would also try some sort of a stunt (which is what this was) to combat NBC's early grab for prime time eyeballs.

Either way, if you somehow missed the first 30 minutes of NBC's extended coverage of the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, rest assured you didn't miss anything at all.

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