FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016
TRANSCRIPT – NBC OLYMPICS EXECUTIVE PRODUCER JIM BELL PREVIEWS RIO 2016
August 2, 2016
3 p.m. ET
CHRIS McCLOSKEY: Thank you for joining us on our call today for Rio 2016. For those keeping score at home, this is NBC’s 15th Olympic Games and ninth consecutive. It’s the most by any U.S. media company. We’ll present 6755 hours of coverage across 11 linear TV networks, the NBCOlympics.com website and the NBC Sports app.
As you’ve probably seen, some firsts this year for us, our 4K coverage, virtual reality coverage, and our digital coverage is streaming to connected TVs for the first time.
The opening ceremony takes place on Friday night, and our coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. eastern and pacific on NBC, although our coverage actually begins tomorrow with women’s soccer on NBCSN and the USA network.
JIM BELL: Thank you, Chris. Hey, everybody, greetings from Rio de Janeiro and the first Olympics set to take place ever in South America. As you know, the favorable time zone means just an incredible amount of live coverage. It’s simply breathtaking to consider that a mere 20 years ago in Atlanta we telecast about 170 hours and now we’re creeping up on 7,000. And while of course we’re very proud of our engineering capability, our production capability to have that be the quality production that we know it will be thanks to our partners at OBS, it is still the overall quality that we have in television, especially in primetime that we’re looking forward to here.
Rio is a special city – arguably the most telegenic to have ever hosted an Olympics. It is definitely, as we have learned, a tale of two cities, a bit of an outlier. They have some haunting and harrowing images and right alongside it they have some of the most spectacular images nature has to offer. Of course a people who have come to redefine the art of celebration with Carnival and so forth.
So the hard work, we think for them is behind them. The venues are ready. The people seem set. They know how to throw a party. The athletes are arriving, and our team, our NBC team this year — we had our production seminar today. A lot of wonderful reconnections, a lot of hugs and this still remains an event that I think for our business that we’re already the gold standard in our industry. And we can’t wait to kick it off Friday night with the opening ceremony.
With that, I’ll be happy to stop yakking and take your questions.
How much variability will there be in what goes on the main primetime feed each night or do you already mostly know what that will be?
JIM BELL: Yeah, we have a pretty good handle on what that’s going to be. Those are really the sports that are the most popular, that get a lot of attention, have the most established stars: Swimming, gymnastics, track & field, diving, and beach volleyball. Occasionally another sport might present itself in a way, but really the good news for mega fans of the Olympics is that’s where you’re going to get those popular sports with polish and production level of the highest quality. Where if people are looking for a specific sport that might not be in primetime, they can stream it, every sport, every frame of Olympic competition is now available to every fan online.
So if you’re a niche fan of a specific sport or have an interest in a certain country, you can follow it. But primetime will be made up mostly of those sports.
I know you’ve expressed a lot of confidence in the face of all the possible or certainly the problems that they’ve had in the ramp up to Rio, and you expect it to go well and you expect it to be strong. Can you give us one plan that you might have in place? What is sort of the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency scenario that you’ve had to think about for this? I mean, I know that you’re hoping for best, but I imagine that you’re prepared for the worst. I wanted to know can you give us a sense of any precautions that you’ve had to take or preparations that you’ve had to make that you haven’t had to make at the other Games?
JIM BELL: Well, not necessarily. We have NBC News here, and I, of course, did three Olympics as a member of the news division for NBC and should the situation call for it, we have Lester Holt from “The Today Show” and the resources and capacity of NBC News to cover it.
I think strictly speaking from the Olympics coverage standpoint, the venues are done. The one potential issue that may come up is the promise about cleaning the bay that wasn’t kept, and how it could potentially impact the sailing competition. They have had multiple test events there. They have had success with a temporary solution that they administer during the competition. We, as well as they, are hopeful that can be the case again during the actual Olympic competition. But beyond that, it’s the same, really, as past Olympics. I think there are always concerns, justifiable or otherwise, or some justifiable, some maybe a little bit extreme.
But we had it certainly in Atlanta, Sydney, Athens by all means, in London and Sochi, where there are different things that we had to be aware of. It’s not our first rodeo. We have a pretty good sense of how to gauge certain things and the risks that are involved. And we feel reasonably confident about things here and are cautiously optimistic these are going to be a great Games for the people of Rio, for the athletes and for the world.
I think there’s been a lot of tough things going on in the world. I think it will be nice, fingers crossed, if we can have a couple of weeks to give people something to cheer about.
The amount of programming you have obviously is impossible for any one person to consume it all. But I’m curious how you deal with that? I assume it’s impossible for you to monitor every single image and thing that is said on your various networks. How do you navigate being the guy in charge of all these things going on when you can’t be aware of everything at every minute?
JIM BELL: Well, that’s a good question. We fortunately have enormously talented people within our organization, but just as important, when it comes to the amount of programming we’re talking about with OBS, Olympic Broadcasting Services, which is the IOC’s broadcasting arm that comes and really we do everything. We work very closely with them. They are wonderful partners. And the quality of their production, the people they’re hiring, the gear they’re using is of the highest quality. So it affords us the ability to do things like have a thousand people working on these Olympics back in Stamford. Knowing that the pictures and sounds that are going back there so that we have some announcers calling it off a monitor there, the viewer at home or the viewer streaming it online will still have a great experience as they consume the Olympics in some fashion.
The lion’s share of the attention now, and we’ve been working on these plans for a couple of years, as we get closer to the Games, specifically for me, will be on primetime and on the other network parts on Late Night with Ryan Seacrest, the daytime show with Mike Tirico, Rebecca Lowe and Al Michaels. And then once we start spinning out over into the cable channels, well, we’ve got just very competent, terrific producers who are all over it.
So we feel good about the plan. It’s not the first time we’ve done this in terms of it is as big as it’s been, but we kind of let the genie out of the bottle a bit in London and it seemed to go pretty well. So we’re willing to take it a step further and we’ll see how it goes.
I wanted to find out more about the 4K and VR plans. The 4K are you talking about a dedicated channel, and for VR are the cameras going to actually be on the athletes on helmets and things like that? And for both, just wanted to get a sense of how much of a delay, and how you’re choosing which events to cover and things like that?
JIM BELL: That’s, again, another window where into the world of our relationship with OBS, where that’s an issue that they’re spearheading and we’re part of. It will be limited offering offered the next day. We think, look, these things are important to try. The Olympics serve as a great ground to test new things, try new technologies, new cameras, new traffic systems and you’re going to see that with 4K and VR. I’m a little bit more bullish on 4K than VR in terms of the Olympic experience.
But, look, it’s all great. Again, I harken back to 20 years ago when we were limited to basically one television, the Olympics being on one television channel. Now you see it across all these different platforms. And I have to think that things like 4K and 8K which is coming, I guess down the road. Who knows where it’s all going. But even add VR to that, it’s great. It’s a great experience for people to try new things and for us to push things a little bit.
We’re not quite there yet, obviously. Remember the first time we did the Olympics in HD, I think we dipped our toe in the water in 2000 or 2002. Now here we are, fast forward, 14, 15 years and of course we have HD. Now we have to move on to the next thing. And there will be something after that, and whatever it is, the Olympics will sort of be at the vanguard of whatever the technology du jour is that people want to try out.
HBO’s Real Sports had a pretty hard hitting piece on the IOC that moved recently. I wondered if you happened to see it and had any reaction to it? And are some of the issues that they bring up about the IOC, some of the demands they make on the host countries, and some of the heavy-handed ways they try to achieve in building the Games, are these some things that NBC can really recover in the position it’s in?
JIM BELL: Well, I haven’t seen it. I’ve heard about it, but I haven’t seen it I guess. That would put me in the majority because I did hear the ratings for it weren’t very good. But I’m not sure. I mean, the question about — what was the question? About where they’re actually putting the Games?
The demands the IOC places on countries to get everything they want? Some of the ways the countries go about building these places and displacing people. There were a lot of things that were in that actual report. But are these type of IOC issues things that you feel people aren’t necessarily that interested in or are they something that NBC can’t really address in its programming?
JIM BELL: Well, I think we have in the past addressed issues specifically regarding an Olympics as we did at the outset of the Sochi Games in primetime with David Remnick and Vladimir Pozner. Then once the Games started, the competitions took place and everything seemed to go pretty well.
We have the aforementioned news programs at NBC and elsewhere and HBO, I guess, certainly are willing to spend time talking about those issues. But for purposes of Olympic telecasts, I agree that there is room for us at the outset, and we’ll do so again here to frame some of those issues and arrive to some context of what’s happening here in Rio and what the Games have meant to the city for good and for bad. Then I think when people are tuning in to watch the Olympics, they’ll want to watch the Olympics.
If something happens, for example, as I mentioned earlier, where sailing competition is affected because of the water, well, of course we’ll talk about that. But as far as any lofty discussions, philosophical conversation about where the Games are going to take place or how the bid cities are selected, I don’t think there’s a tremendous amount of interest. I don’t think that’s what we’re here to do after we address the specific issues around Rio at the outset.
It appears that NBC has a lot of say in when the events kind of occur. Specifically, I guess, there was a bit of an uproar about the swimming times where a lot of athletes have been kind of thrown for a loop that NBC apparently was able to convince the Olympics to sort of do the preliminaries and the finals on a later schedule than people are generally used to. I guess my question is twofold: When you’re making these decisions, can you run through the process about whether NBC consults athletes or is it strictly a sort of ratings-based decision with the IOC? And then in general, how much does NBC have a say in the scheduling of the Olympic events?
JIM BELL: Okay. There’s a lot there to get into. What I would say is this: The IOC and the IOC alone sets the schedule. Around the Olympics there are any number of constituents from international federations to national organizing committees, to broadcasters and, of course, the athletes. I don’t think I really saw any kind of outcry.
I don’t think this was — this certainly wasn’t sprung on anybody in terms of the schedule. The schedule was set long in advance so that every athlete and every sport has a chance to know when their competition is taking place. So that’s really the long and the short of it.
The IOC sets the schedule. Sometimes things happen in the schedule that are good for us, and sometimes things happen in the schedule that aren’t good for us. That’s pretty much the name of that tune.
So as a follow-up. When they’re making all these decisions, you would say NBC has sort of an equal footing as some of the other things, the organizing committee, the broadcasters and the athletes? Or would you say you guys are a little more influential when you come to the table and before the IOC makes that decision?
JIM BELL: I think you’d have to ask the IOC.
Jim, you mentioned a few moments ago a thousand people in Stamford. I was wondering about how your production capabilities or production personnel might be different for the Rio Games than in the past? I guess it’s my understanding that you have more people in Connecticut than you’ve had for prior Games?
JIM BELL: Yes, it’s true. It’s quite an operation there. In fact, when we had the at-home operation in the London Olympics it was at 30 Rock, actually on the Saturday Night Live studio built out to accommodate various voiceover booths and announce booths and things.
So this is the first for us at our headquarters in Stamford to handle the Summer Olympics, which is a monster to handle. So many of these sports you’re calling it off a monitor anyway. The technology is such that it’s a lot easier and it comes at no expense to the viewer to have these people in Stamford. So for us it’s just a much smarter proposition overall if it doesn’t impact our quality in any way and we can manage things more efficiently.
It allows us to have more resources where they might be better needed and used, then it’s a great thing. We think that at-home operation is likely to grow in the Olympics to come.
Could you say how many folks do you have on the ground in Rio?
JIM BELL: Couple thousand.
JIM BELL: 2000.
I’ve been looking back at some of the coverage from the ’96 Games and the conversation that surrounded the efforts to produce a little more narrative in the context of primetime coverage. I was wondering if you could say a little bit about that. Is storytelling still essential in the telecast? Do you think about storytelling differently on primetime versus cable? And do the opportunities to show a lot of great live coverage from Rio sort of change the challenge of storytelling on TV?
JIM BELL: Interesting question. Storytelling is still at the core of everything we do. I think in primetime especially because you’re introducing the audience to athletes that most of the audience doesn’t know and they’re trying to watch sports that, outside of the Olympics, they never watch.
So it’s a tall order to connect the audience with what’s going on. The audience comes usually willing and hoping to have that. It’s not simply a sports event. It’s a human event. They want a little bit of the story line that goes into it. What my sense since 1996, well, first of all, you’re right. On cable, it’s still story driven, but cable is a lot more long-form sports, a lot of Team USA sports on the NBC Sports Network, for example.
But you’re still going to see producers, even if they may not have the resources — like if you were the basketball producer, you basically have one camera at your disposal, and your game’s are all on NBCSN. So you’re going to try to use that camera as best you can to shoot some parent in the stands and try to figure out when to cut that into the world feed.
If you’re the swimming producer, well, you’ve got a whole army of cameras. You could pretty much cover that swimming event unilaterally. So it depends on what you have, and people here, our producers are crafty and resourceful and know how to use things like a graphic or a quote or a cutaway to a parent or a picture of some little story about this athlete and this coach to humanize them, to hear their stories so that people want to know about it.
What’s changed also I think is that the time that people are willing to invest in those stories. I think we have got to do more storytelling in a shorter time. So in the past you might have four minutes to play a lovingly crafted, produced piece of television to say here’s this guy’s story. That’s a long time for people. They get a little itchy. So a lot of times that can be done in a piece that’s maybe 90 seconds or two minutes. Or it can be done simply with the announcer and the analyst cutting away to a family member in the stands and telling some anecdote that means something to the audience.
So, yeah, very interesting. Central to what we do at the top when we approach every Olympics and sure to evolve as we go on.
When you’re talking about the Stamford coverage, it’s more than likely the viewer at home doesn’t know the broadcasters aren’t actually at the event in Rio, but if you followed NBC Universal channels they’ve done that for years with overseas coverage, and I know sometimes you have a play-by-play person in Stamford and a reporter in Rio. How do you come clean with the viewers about how you’re covering a certain sport, whether you’re at site or not? Do you address it or not or do you feel that’s something that needs to be addressed?
JIM BELL: I don’t feel that strongly about it needing to be addressed. I think if it comes up or the announcers want to say it at their discretion, given what’s taking place on the field of play, that’s fine. I think you have to consider so much coverage these days even when the announcers are actually at the events, they’re getting their information off a monitor.
So whether they’re outside in a TV combine calling it off a monitor or high above the field of play looking at it off a monitor or happen to be 6,000 mile as way in Stamford calling it off a monitor, I mean, it’s a brave new world. I mean, people are on Facebook Live and things are being live streamed all the time on Periscope.
So I don’t think it’s being disingenuous. But, again, we will have reporters on site at every event.
With the number of hours you’re going to be broadcasting for and OTT platforms that weren’t around or weren’t fully formed four years ago, can you talk a little bit about what conversations went into weighing on the granularity of control versus the simplicity of use on those platforms?
JIM BELL: I’m not sure I followed you.
Well, you have maybe a dozen live feeds to choose from during the day. In some cases how easy is it going to be for a user to figure out the scoreboard versus swimming versus something else that’s going on at one time from an interface standpoint?
JIM BELL: Yeah, I mean, I think the world is evolving in terms of our audience’s ability to consume and understand these technologies. I’m hopeful that whether it’s on our website at NBCOlympics.com or using the Olympic app, things will be fairly intuitive. I know that four years ago in London we were very proud/nervous that we decided to stream all the coverage live. And I think for a lot of people the initial experience was less than favorable because they didn’t know how to authenticate it.
I think for a lot of the audience, the London Olympics represented the first time in their lives where they had to authenticate as a cable customer, and people didn’t know how to do it or they didn’t know their password or they had to go online and go to somebody and get it checked and it’s a pain in the fanny so they bailed out. A certain part of that audience got angry at us.
Three years later and you’re seeing now people who have Hulu and they have Netflix, and they have HBO GO, and they’ve gotten more comfortable around it. In Sochi we had virtually no complaints as people have gotten more educated about it, how to interface with the coverage from device to device, how to authenticate, how to stream. So I’m hoping that trend continues as we continue to offer it on more platforms.
The research from London continues as well, which is that people who were willing to have all these devices on watching the Olympics, actually watched more Olympics on television than people who just watched the Olympics on television. That sort of marked them as Super Fans, and we’d like to see their ranks grow.
I wanted to clarify in terms of the primetime coverage of your three biggest sports, basically, is it accurate to say that swimming and Track & Field will be primarily live whereas gymnastics will be a little bit more packaged?
JIM BELL: That’s entirely accurate.
I assume that’s partly just because of the nature of gymnastics?
JIM BELL: It’s because of the timing of gymnastics when that competition is taking place.
You mean just the time of night?
JIM BELL: Gymnastics is taking place in the afternoon.
But also isn’t gymnastics always kind of better served to not be live simply because kind of the three-ring circus aspect of it?
JIM BELL: Not necessarily. It wasn’t in Beijing. So sometimes it’s been live and it’s been great, and sometimes it’s been on tape and it’s been pretty darn good. You know, I mean wouldn’t mind it if it in any way, shape or form if it was live, but once again, it is the IOC who makes the schedule.
I had a question about there seemed to be some controversy earlier on about the order in which the U.S. Team was going to be coming out in the opening ceremony. Standardly the U.S. Team comes out later obviously based on alphabetical order. But because the athletes are being introduced in Portuguese, that moves the U.S. up quite a bit. What is the status of that situation and have you been able to have any discussions with them to keep the U.S. on longer, which I understand you want because obviously that’s better for United States viewers to keep watching?
JIM BELL: I don’t understand the question. What was the question?
There seemed to be some discussions in which order the United States team were going to be introduced in the opening ceremony. Traditionally teams are introduced via alphabetical order, but that alphabetical order actually falls under the jurisdiction of whatever the nature language is of the host country, in this case, Portuguese. In Portuguese the translation of the United States actually moves it up considerably in the line of teams being welcomed. I understand there was some issue about that and NBC were trying to make sure they were introduced later because the United States viewers would stay tuned?
JIM BELL: Well, there was a story — and I haven’t seen all the stories — I think it was in a local Brazilian paper that had reported that we had attempted to use the English alphabet for that and that was not true. We are using the host country alphabet as it has always been and will be on Friday night.
You mentioned the Olympics being a test bed for new technologies as you’ve gotten the live stream under control so to speak, where do you see VR going? Do you think that’s something you really want to try to grow?
JIM BELL: Look, as just one guy, the technology will drive that discussion moving forward. If you’re just asking my personal opinion, I’m not a huge believer in that moving forward, to be honest. I think it seems like a cool thing, but where it stands right now with the goggles and you’ve got to put this thing on your head, it’s not there yet.
I kind of like the experience of watching big events like the Olympics on a high-quality television screen, which as we like to say, is as God intended it.
CHRIS McCLOSKEY: All right. Well, thank you everyone for joining us today. Our Olympic coverage begins tomorrow with women’s soccer on NBCSN and USA Network, and the opening ceremony coverage begins Friday night, 7:30 p.m. eastern on NBC, eastern and pacific.