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Zika, dirty water and more than 7,500 hours of Olympics TV: How NBC is preparing for the Rio games

Rio ready
NBC’s daytime and late night set for the Rio Olympics located on Copacabana Beach in Rio.
(Courtesy of NBC via AP)

Bob Costas couldn’t resist asking a key question to his NBC colleague Mary Carillo during the Television Critics Assn. summer press tour this week.

Carillo, executive producer Jim Bell and Costas, an 11-time host for the Olympic Games, were addressing the safety concerns that have arisen in the run-up to the Rio Games, which formally begin with the network’s broadcast of the opening ceremonies Friday at 8 p.m.

Carillo offered that she would be covering open-water swimming, and at first compared pollution concerns of Rio’s water with the goose droppings that plagued swimmers in London’s Hyde Park for the 2012 Olympics. But the Rio event is complicated by the recent comments of University of South Florida’s biomedical specialist  Valerie Harwood, who viewed the results of a 16-month study of water pollution in the city and advised: “Don’t put your head under water.”

“Will you take a dip yourself?” Costas pointedly asked Carillo via a satellite feed before a backdrop of the sprawling Rio skyline and its Maracanã Stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies will be held.

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Carillo didn’t hesitate: “Absolutely not.”

While that’s not the sort of endorsement any arriving athlete may want to hear, the network remains cautiously optimistic — not that it has much choice given its level of commitment. Every two years, NBC counts on the Games to provide a ratings bonanza, and NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt sounded confident that Rio will deliver just that when discussing the summer’s prospects, casually referencing the benefits of “a little thing called the Olympics” during his executive session panel at the TCA summer press tour. (The network will launch the next season of “The Voice” following the closing ceremonies  Aug. 21.)

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While the 2014 Games in Sochi were down from their 2010 counterpart in Vancouver, the 2012 Summer Games in London were the most-watched event in U.S. television history, averaging more than 31 million viewers nightly.

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To try to top those results, NBC plans to deliver close to 7,000 hours of coverage across multiple networks and online platforms (see sidebar). According to Bell, about 2,000 staffers will be on the ground in Rio to join another 1,000 dedicated to the Games while based in the network’s studio in Stamford, Conn.

 

But a laundry list of concerns surrounding the Games remain. In addition to questions about water sanitation and safety,  there is the ongoing threat of the Zika virus, which recently appeared in Florida. There are also questions about security, multiple allegations of corruption in Brazil’s federal government and a national economy that has plunged into a deep recession after the International Olympic Committee awarded the Games to Rio de Janeiro in 2009. 

And those issues are outside of the broader questions  about the integrity of the Olympics, which has weathered a recent doping controversy surrounding athletes at the Winter Games in Sochi, which left the Russian team under the threat of being barred from the Rio games up until this week.

“Every Olympic Games over the last few years back have always had issues,” said Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports, during a conference call. He also said staffers were given the option to decline to go to Rio given the various concerns and that “very few” opted out. (“Today” cohost Savannah Guthrie, who is pregnant, was one of the high-profile personalities who chose to stay home.)

“Sochi had terrorism issues. London had traffic and security concerns. Athens had many concerns whether they were going to be ready in time,” Lazarus added. “And all of those things have always worked themselves through.”

If the Games in Rio do not mirror their predecessors by coming together at the wire with the lighting of the torch, NBC says it will be ready to transition from a sports and entertainment event to hard news.

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“We’ll be able to cover and hand off back and forth between sports and news,” Lazarus said. “There’s a process in place for that to happen.”

“I did three Olympics as a member of the news division,” Bell said on Tuesday during a conference call with reporters. Should the need arise, he continued, NBC anchor Lester Holt and the resources of NBC News would be available to cover the situation.

“The one potential issue that may come up is the promise about cleaning the bay that wasn’t kept,” said Bell, who added during the network’s TCA presentation that “dozens” of test events have been conducted in the water, resulting in  “zero problems.”

NBC’s Bob Costas, left, Mary Carillo and Jim Bell via satellite from Rio at the 2016 TCA press tour.
NBC’s Bob Costas, left, Mary Carillo and Jim Bell via satellite from Rio at the 2016 TCA press tour.
(Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images )

Costas said that as the many problems surrounding Rio came to light months ago one could have made a case for postponing or moving the Games. That was a decision that ultimately rested with the International Olympic Committee and its president, Thomas Bach. Costas said he planned to have an “extensive interview” with Bach during the Games to address these concerns.

“Every question that is relevant about the IOC’s handling and approach to these Olympics, the Olympics in general, the Olympics going forward … I will put every one of those questions to [him],” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Though the network cited its own research that claimed interest in the 2016 Olympics remains higher than ever, it may have stumbled on a theme for observers in introducing a promotional clip on Tuesday.

The video included high-energy footage of NBC Olympic correspondents Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, along with stately NBC news veteran Tom Brokaw, set to the beat of rollicking percussion. A single title card preceded the images and seemed pointed to those fixated on the early controversy surrounding the Games:

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“Abandon your expectations.”

chris.barton@latimes.com

On Twitter: @chrisbarton

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