Feb. 4, 2014 3:59 p.m. ET
Jim Bell’s first job at NBC at one point involved carrying an injured network executive around Barcelona during preparations for the 1992 Olympics. As demanding as that assignment was, it was light compared with the weight Mr. Bell will carry during this month’s Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
The veteran producer is responsible for NBCUniversal’s telecast of the Olympics, which start Thursday, the first time NBC will broadcast the games without the expertise of longtime sports executive Dick Ebersol. Much is riding on the Olympics, which go out over NBC’s broadcast network, four cable channels—including NBCSN and CNBC—and online.
The network is banking on the promotional platform of the broadcast to cement a ratings surge this TV season, potentially getting NBC out of a yearslong struggle. NBC also hopes the broadcast will elevate “The Tonight Show” handoff from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon, who debuts in the middle of the games.
Just as important, parent NBCUniversal to turn a “comfortable” profit, says NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus, something the network didn’t do at the last Winter Games, in Vancouver. That telecast produced a $ 223 million loss for NBC, which at the time was owned by General Electric Co. GE +0.90% General Electric Co. U.S.: NYSE $ 24.57 +0.22 +0.90% Feb. 4, 2014 4:00 pm Volume (Delayed 15m) : 45.54M AFTER HOURS $ 24.57 -0.00 -0.00% Feb. 4, 2014 4:59 pm Volume (Delayed 15m): 315,099 P/E Ratio 17.43 Market Cap $ 246.36 Billion Dividend Yield 3.58% Rev. per Employee $ 478,836 01/28/14 Philips, Siemens Warn of Slugg… 01/24/14 Dow Dips Below 16000 01/24/14 GE Capital Imitating Consumer … More quote details and news » GE in Your Value Your Change Short position NBC says it frequently made money on previous games.
In 2012, after Comcast Corp. CMCSA +1.42% Comcast Corp. Cl A U.S.: Nasdaq $ 53.52 +0.75 +1.42% Feb. 4, 2014 4:00 pm Volume (Delayed 15m) : 13.88M AFTER HOURS $ 53.52 0.00 0.00% Feb. 4, 2014 5:00 pm Volume (Delayed 15m): 140,310 P/E Ratio 20.90 Market Cap $ 137.08 Billion Dividend Yield 1.68% Rev. per Employee $ 501,217 02/04/14 Sochi Olympics: NBC Producer H… 02/02/14 ‘Ride Along’ Continues to Top … 01/29/14 Cable Operator Bright House Hi… More quote details and news » CMCSA in Your Value Your Change Short position bought control of NBCU, the company broke even on the Summer Olympics in London. But summer games typically are a stronger draw for viewers, who are more familiar with summer sports, like gymnastics and swimming, than winter events, like speed skating and bobsledding.
Moreover, a nine-hour time difference with the U.S. East Coast will make it impossible for NBC to show any Sochi events live in prime time, where advertisers pay the most to be seen.
Another wrinkle: NBC’s decision to stream all of the games live online, as it did with the London Games, to pay-television subscribers. Along with the pervasiveness of social media, that means viewers likely will know results before the prime-time broadcast. And adding injury to insult, superstar skier Lindsey Vonn dropped out with a knee problem in January.
“I wish like heck that she was going to be there,” says the 46-year-old Mr. Bell. “But there are plenty of other stars.”
Some math works in Comcast’s favor. NBCU’s rights fee of $ 775 million was about $ 45 million less than what the company paid for Vancouver. And the company says it so far has sold more than $ 800 million in national ads, up from about $ 750 million in Vancouver. Digital-ad sales have increased to more than $ 50 million from about $ 22 million in 2010.
But these Olympics have been complex to organize. Sochi is just a remote speck on the Black Sea Coast in the shadow of the Caucasus Mountains—far from any major Russian centers.
“Look at this crazy place,” Mr. Bell jokes, pointing to Sochi on a map in his Stamford, Conn., office. “No one knows where it is!”
“It’s the first Olympics where almost everything had to be built from scratch,” says Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics. NBC won’t comment on how logistics affected its costs, estimated at more than $ 100 million.
Mr. Bell, a 6-foot-4-inch former defensive tackle for Harvard, has long experience in Olympics coverage. He started for NBC part-time in Barcelona in 1990, when he had to wheel around and occasionally carry executive Randy Falco. Mr. Bell soon caught the eye of Mr. Ebersol, who in time hired him as a production assistant for the Olympics and NBC sports. Mr. Bell spent 15 years in the sports division, helping to produce the Summer Games in Atlanta and Athens, before becoming executive producer of the “Today” show, one of NBC’s most important profit makers.
That job became part of a soap opera in the news media. He beefed up the show by adding a fourth hour to the broadcast. But late in his 7½-year stint, the show lost its longtime lead as the top-rated morning show to ABC’s “Good Morning America” amid cast turmoil.
“There was a lot of drama,” Mr. Bell says.
To draw viewers to the Olympics, he must in part create new stars from sports like curling and ice hockey by creating stories that viewers care about. In the past, he has had the benefit of Mr. Ebersol’s guidance. But the executive left NBC after the Comcast acquisition in 2011, though he consulted for the company during the 2012 London Games.
Mr. Bell’s team already has shot about 40 features focusing on the back stories of individual athletes, as well as a handful of longer pieces, including one about the 1994 figure-skating scandal between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.
Write to Christopher S. Stewart at email@example.com