The Winter Olympics has long embraced offbeat events, awarding medals for skills that are essentially head-first sledding and target-practice on skis.
But when NBC's coverage of the quadrennial competition begins from Sochi, Russia on Feb. 6, the Winter Olympics will push even its own quirky boundaries. For the first time, the Games will feature such events as team figure skating, women's ski jumping and the trick-filled downhill course of skiing and snowboarding known as "slopestyle" — part of a complement of a dozen events that have never before been included in the Games.
Not least of its upended rites: The opening ceremony actually won't take place until Feb. 7, a day after the competition begins.
In what will be the longest, largest and most broadcast Winter Games, NBC will offer a number of innovations. The first Winter Games in Russia will also be the first Winter Games to have every moment of its more than 1,500 hours of competition available on TV or via live-streaming.
The Games will also offer special challenges, such as political abstentions over an anti-gay law, a cloud of free-speech controversies under the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, security questions in the wake of dual terrorist bombings in Volgograd and a hefty time difference that will especially stand out in this age of social media.
All this will add up to a mix of opportunities and challenges, and a potential shift in how Americans consume the Winter Games.
"New events like women's ski jumping and team figure skating come at a time when the audience's appetite and ability to interact with all sports is growing," said NBC Olympics executive producer Jim Bell, the "Today" veteran who is helming his first Winter Games after stepping into the retired Dick Ebersol's shoes several years ago. "What you saw in London was a big step in terms of airing everything live. What you'll see in Sochi is another significant step."
The Winter Games has added events before—curling in 1998, or the form of head-to-head snowboard racing known as snowcross in 2006. But these Games will see the most new events in 22 years. Also at Sochi is a halfpipe ski competition, an extreme-sports spin on the classic skill, and a luge relay, which manages to allow for its own version of baton-passing for racers shooting down a mountain, on their backs, at 80 mph.
And if you thought scoring for individual figure skating was byzantine, consider the team
competition: it will feature six skaters from each country competing
in a total of eight events on three separate nights.
It's part of a bold — some say fraught — effort by the International Olympic Committee to raise the Games' profile among newer viewers, particularly younger ones, even as the expansion leads to the question of whether more is better. The Games could thus face a backlash that it is engaging in event creep, and doing it for sports that belong more at the X Games. (The Summer Olympics, never one to shy away from new events, has thus far stayed away from skateboading and other less traditional sports.)
Those involved with the coverage say that these sports only enhance the Winter Games' appeal.
"At first I was a bit of a purist," said Al Michaels, who began covering the Olympics in 1972 and will again anchor many of the Games' daytime telecasts. "But the thing is, all the other sports are still there for those who want to watch them. And these X Games-type sports bring new people to the Games."
The stakes are high for NBC, which paid $4.4 billion for the rights to broadcast Olympic competitions through the 2020 Summer Games.
The network this year must compete against the likes of a new season of "American Idol," which Fox has counterprogrammed against the past few Winter Games.
NBC must also contend with a turnover in prime-time-friendly stars. Figure skating could be dinged by the recent retirement of fan favorite Johnny Weir (he'll be in the broadcast booth) and the nonparticipation of Vancouver gold medalist Evan Lysacek, out because of injury. Apolo Ohno, who electrified the last three Games with his short-track speed skating performances, will also be in the booth following his retirement.
Like a capable biathlete, NBC will have several other magazines in its rifle.
Shaun White, newly shorn, will bring his Flying Tomato act to Sochi--well, at least the flying part, as he tries to win gold in the snowboard halfpipe for the third straight Winter Olympics and also looks to make his mark in snowboard slopestyle. (At press time he was in the driver's seat for a spot on the U.S. slopestyle team, which involves a series of tricks as boarders and skiers make their way down a mountain course.)
Figure skating will offer some chances to mint new stars with up-and-comers such as two-time national champion Ashley Wagner on the women's side and, on the men's side, reigning national champion
Max Aaron and Chicago wunderkind Jason Brown.
The U.S. will also be fielding a ski team rife with intrigue. The complicated, unorthodox Bode Miller, 36, will compete in what is almost surely his last Games, while women's superstar Lindsey Vonn is recovering from a serious knee injury and is a question mark for Sochi. Of the greatest relevance to NBC and its new-demographic ambitions is Mikaela Shiffrin, the 18-year-old slalom phenom who is the reigning World Cup champion despite having competed internationally for only three years, and who comes in bearing a host of expectations.
"I don't think the U.S. ski team has ever gone into an Olympics with more star power," said Steve Porino, the former U.S. skier who will serve as an analyst for NBC. "These are once-an-era athletes."
Also, there's curling.
Ratings for Winter Olympics in recent years have been an up-and-down affair. They tend to be strongest when the time zones overlap with those of the continental U.S. The 2010 games in Vancouver and 2002 competition in Salt Lake City were strong (24.4 million and 31.9 million average prime-time viewers, respectively) while numbers for the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy, were weak (20.2 million).
Because of the time difference — 12 hours to the West Coast — U.S. audiences could be watching the taped prime-time competition while the next day's events have already begun.
It is here, NBC executives believe, that new platforms make the most difference, both with digital live-steaming for authenticated users as well as on cable. For the first time, every minute of the figure skating competition will be aired on cable, on the recently rechristened NBC Sports Network.
So dizzying are the number of events--and so dedicated to showing it all no matter the whiplash--that NBC has created a digital show called "Gold Zone," a program that hops around to climactic or interesting moments around the Games in the same way that the NFL Network's Red Zone Channel does for Sunday football.
The network's experience in London in 2012, executives said, showed that people who watched live-streams were on average more likely to watch taped events in prime time, not less.
"The more we circulate our content and the more we make it available during a competition day, the more people seem to be excited to watch the Olympics at night," said Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics and operations and strategy for NBC Sports Group, who added that despite some concerns six months ago, infrastructure has made great strides in the small towns that will host the Olympics. The Games must also cope with the threat of terrorism; rebel Chechen leaders have vowed to stage attacks to disrupt the competition.
Meanwhile, in light of a Russian law banning gay "propaganda" passed last summer, and criticism over Putin's handling of free speech-issues, the network also faces a dilemma: It must at least appear to incorporate some political content in its coverage without overshadowing the feel good human-interest stories that are the Olympics' main draw.
"We're certainly not shying away from it but we don't want to force the issue," Bell said. "At the end of the day this is about athletes and their stories."
Some of the harder-news weight can be shouldered by sister division NBC News, though, just to be safe, Bell has hired New Yorker editor David Remnick, a former Moscow correspondent, as an on-air commentator.
Michaels, for his part, said he sees his job as "reporting, not commenting." And even though many share his view, the Olympics could bring a dose of what might be called the "Costas Effect." At the London Games in 2012 the veteran broadcaster, who will again anchor the Games' prime-time coverage, made a pointed statement during the entrance of Israeli athletes during the opening ceremony when he called out the IOC for its refusal to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Munich Olympics massacre.
For many Americans, nothing conjures the intersection of politics and Olympics like hockey, what with the U.S.' landmark victory over the Soviet Union in the semifinals of the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.
That sport hopes to recapture some more recent magic; in Vancouver the U.S. and Canada played a gripping gold medal match that went into overtime and garnered big ratings.
But despite the Russian setting, this year's Games probably won't be able to offer the same on-ice political dimension as Lake Placid and Michaels' famous "Do you believe in miracles?" call.
"It's not," he said wryly, "like Al Qaeda fields any teams."