With the July 27 start of the London games getting closer, news crews from NBC O&Os and affiliates across the country are hard at work producing stories, profiles and packages to give them a local ratings boost. And some are prepping to make the trip overseas to be on hand for the 17 days, generating more material for themselves and, in some cases, their group-owned siblings.
Determined to make the most of NBC’s Olympics coverage next month, the news team at NBC affiliate KUSA Denver (DMA 17) has spent countless hours over the last couple of years working the local angle, profiling athletes for newscasts and producing two half-hour specials, including one on hometown swimming favorite Missy Franklin. When she takes the plunge in London, KUSA will be there.
In Seattle (DMA 12), Belo’s KING is in the 18th month of its Olympics prep and will be sending a three-person crew across the pond to cover stories of particular interest to Seattle as well as to the markets of other Belo stations.
Another NBC affiliate, Media General’s WVTM Birmingham, Ala. (DMA 39), won’t have reporters in London but it will have extensive coverage that already has started with profiles of past Olympians from the area as well as local up-and-comers. The station’s coverage also lasts well beyond the closing ceremonies with stories related to the Paralympics also in London in August. Many of the Paralympians train in Birmingham.
With less than six weeks to go until the games begin, such swells of news activity are well underway at NBC stations throughout the country as they prepare to capitalize on the Olympics for 17 days starting July 27 — and the mammoth number of viewers expected to watch them.
Replete with human drama, battles to be the best, pageantry and patriotism, the Olympics are packed with potential for stories that have real impact in individual markets, the local news execs say.
NBC has dibs on covering the actual games, and the official pomp and circumstance that’s always a draw. But for months the affiliates have been staking their claims on other Olympics-related stories — hometown athletes and the like — that can boost news ratings and revenue.
“There are not many things that we broadcast that get the kind of attention and amount of viewership that the Olympics do,” says Don North, news director at Media General’s WFLA Tampa, Fla. (DMA 14). “It is very important to a lot of people. So for us not to be actively involved in it would be crazy.”
At very least, NBC affiliates plan to pepper their local newscasts with locally focused Olympics stories, many of which are being produced before the athletes leave town. Others, like KUSA Denver, are investing even more in the effort, producing several full-length specials leading up to the games.
And affiliates across the board will precede nightly network coverage with Olympic Zone, a half-hour, NBC-produced show that gives stations the option of mixing in local stories.
Some station groups — NBC, Gannett, Hearst and Belo, for example — are giving the Olympics a local bent through group-wide efforts that include pooling resources and having crews comprising reporters from several stations report from London during the games.
Despite sharing an owner with NBC Sports, all 10 NBC-owned stations are sending talent to London and deciding for themselves what to cover, says Susan Tully, VP of news at KXAS Dallas-Ft. Worth (DMA 5). The group will have 22 reporters in London, more than twice the number who covered the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
The stations are working with NBC News Channel to secure live camera locations, credentials and housing in London.
But building relationship with athletes and their families is solely up to the local reporters and producers, Tully says. If they have done their job, she says, they will have the advantage in London of being “a familiar and trusted face in the middle of international media.”
Each NBC O&O will air its own version of Olympic Zone, which will be hosted by local personalities from their home studios and have market-specific content. Profiles of local athletes already have been aired and are available online, Tully says.
As part of Gannett’s group-wide effort, KUSA Denver started promoting the Olympics in April, when it aired a special previewing the games. Its Missy Franklin program will run on each of the group’s 12 NBC affiliates the first week in July, says the Gannett Broadcasting VP of News Rob Mennie.
Local newscasts on the Gannett stations will also include stories showcasing Olympic favorites produced in conjunction with USA Today Sports, he says.
Gannett has assembled a news team from eight of its NBC affiliates that will produce segments for all of its stations.
History shows the investment is likely to pay off, says Gannett Broadcasting President Dave Lougee. “We have markets where the Olympics are big and we also have very strong stations. So, we end up having very high numbers.”
Stories created by the nine-person crew Hearst Television is sending to London will be available to all of the group’s 29 stations, regardless of network affiliation, says VP of News Brian Bracco. Hearst also has enlisted Hilary Phelps, the sister of swimming superstar Michael, “to provide some color and expertise.”
“It’s a huge event, obviously by the ratings and everything else,” Bracco says. “We want to maximize it.”
Months ago, Belo’s KING hosted a get-together for athletes and their families from the Seattle-Tacoma area to get the relationships off to the right start. Covering Olympic contenders’ personal stories is part of the station’s mission because “these athletes are not like professional sports stars that everybody knows,” says GM Ray Heacox. KING reporter Christie Johnson is working on a feature that involves going shoe shopping with Ariana Coucores, a local swimmer with Olympic hopes, he says.
Most stations will try to enhance the network coverage without sending anybody to England. Media General’s WFLA, for instance, will add sports to its morning show during the games and already has completed 12 packages on local athletes, some of whom have yet to qualify, North says. Parts of the Olympic Zone will be broadcast live from local sponsors’ locations, and will be used to promote food drives spearheaded by the station.
WVTM Birmingham has dedicated four people to Olympics coverage. Much of it will focus on the Lakeshore Foundation, a local nonprofit whose facility serves as a Paralympics training site. The news team has launched an effort to get “every former Olympian in the state” to appear on its newscasts and Daytime Alabama, the station’s lifestyle show, says General Sales Manager Ronda Garvin.
In Raleigh-Durham, N.C., (DMA 24), WNCN plans to launch a new morning show during the Olympics to capitalize on the extra viewership.
The various efforts, station executives say, could have huge positive ramifications for the affiliates, since the Olympics are one of the few events that spur people who don’t usually watch TV to tune in.
“The Olympics really is a huge, popular set of programming here that lends us a platform to service our local customers really well and promote to our local customers pretty well too,” Heacox says.
“When we dominate the marketplace during the Olympics, we will dominate in virtually everything.”