Olympic demo race is all about speed

Feb 4, 2002  •  Post A Comment

NBC plans to incorporate a new slate of graphic elements into its Olympics coverage this month to emphasize the speed and edginess of events such as speed skating, freestyle aerial skiing and skeleton.
Viewership of major sports by the coveted adults 18 to 34 demographic has fallen off in the past decade, said Randy Falco, president of the NBC Television Network and chief operating officer for NBC Olympics, during a conference call last week. NBC wants to lure them back with a renewed focus on young viewers and the high-speed sports they are presumed to like.
The Winter Olympics features a number of sports largely unfamiliar to Americans, and NBC aims to make those sports more viewer-friendly and accessible through graphics and virtual imagery, said David Neal, executive VP, NBC Olympics.
The sliding sports of bobsled, luge and skeleton-the latter a daring sledding event returning to the Games for the first time since 1948-will feature eight radar-gun sites around the track allowing for real-time sequential readouts. These “speed traps” allow viewers to see where racers accelerate or decelerate on the track.
Freestyle aerial skiing coverage will rely on technology from New York-based Sportvision, inventor of the virtual first-down line used in NFL football telecasts, to measure the height and hang time of the jumps.
“That’s a sport that is maybe not that familiar, and we think that kind of technology makes it more viewer-friendly,” Mr. Neal said.
The ski jump competition will employ the familiar 1st & Ten line from college and pro football coverage to indicate the “line to beat,” the distance other skiers are trying to surpass. While distance is not the only criterion for winning the ski jump, it is the most important.
Speed-skating coverage will include two types of technology. Flags of the skaters’ countries will be superimposed on each racer’s lane throughout the event in the same way flags were superimposed in each of the eight swimmers’ lanes during NBC’s coverage of the 2000 Sydney Games. In addition, television audiences will see real-time readouts of a skater’s speed and time intervals.
The technology, also from Sportvision, will display current speed, acceleration and average speed.
NBC’s aim is to integrate the technology seamlessly into the coverage.
“The mandate from Dick [Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports and NBC Olympics] and [Mr. Falco] has been not to use the Olympics as a platform to show off new gizmos for the sake of having new gizmos, but instead to make sure whenever we try to apply these new applications to our coverage that the basic criteria are, “Do they enhance the telecast and do they make the experience better for our viewers?’ We think they will,” Mr. Neal said.
While NBC runs the risk of overwhelming the events with such technologies, Frank Deford, sports commentator for National Public Radio and Sports Illustrated, gave NBC credit for wanting to pep up its coverage to attract a younger audience.
“This is a sign that maybe for the first time, NBC is trying to rope in a new audience and not treat the Olympics as so solemn. I find it interesting that NBC is doing something different for these Games and departing from past coverage and treating the Olympics as church. I think it had just gotten stale,” he said.
The Winter Olympics have been a picture postcard of snow-capped mountains and winter beauty, and Mr. Deford thinks audiences are ready for something else. “Pretty only goes so far,” he said.