With the Winter Games (scheduled from Feb. 12 to 28) less than six months away, David Neal is gearing up to produce his ninth Olympics. Neal, executive producer at NBC Sports and executive vice president of NBC Olympics, has a tough act to follow. The Beijing Games were the most-watched TV event in U.S. history. The 29-time Emmy winner and Peabody recipient recently spoke with Multichannel.com news editor Mike Reynolds about some of the differences in scale between the Summer and Winter Games, programming strategies across different platforms and his expectations for Vancouver. An edited transcript follows:
MCN: Is it a matter of trepidation, anxiety or familiarity as you prepare for the Games in Vancouver?
David Neal: Well, definitely not trepidation. This will be my ninth Olympic Games. It’s great anticipation, particularly because Vancouver sets up so well for an American broadcaster. It’s really very similar to when we were preparing to do the games at Salt Lake City. It’s Pacific time zone, as opposed to Mountain time. I think that’s typical of most Americans when we go north to Canada, we feel like we’re right at home.
MCN: Where will the broadcast center be located?
DN: It is just a spectacular setting. The city is right on the harbor with vistas of the mountains in the not-too-far away distance … The broadcast center is located on the waterfront next to the Pan Pacific Hotel. It’s actually in a brand new extension to the convention center that was just opened a few months ago, there in the heart of Vancouver. And across what’s called Coal Harbour is North Vancouver. And then just up the slopes is Cypress Mountain, where all the snowboarding and freestyle skiing will take place.
Sort of off to one side is Lions Gate Bridge, which is actually the namesake of Lionsgate Films, which does things like [the AMC series] Mad Men.
MCN: How much time have you and the crew already spent there? When will you become firmly encamped in Canada?
DN: It’s such a pleasant and easy place to go to, so I haven’t really kept track of how many times I’ve been there.
We won’t be there in large numbers until after the New Year. Our core group will be getting there right around the holidays, in that Thanksgiving to Christmas period. In so many ways it feels like a domestic event, so it’s not something where you have to have a huge workforce there months ahead of time.
MCN: Has it been determined how many hours of coverage we’re going to see on NBC and its various properties?
DN: We’re still working on the math there. I think it’s fair to say it’ll be comparable to what we’ve done in past Winter Games, certainly in Torino. But in terms of the actual numbers and the distribution, we’re not quite ready to lock that in yet.
MCN: We’ll find out that curling will be on USA, or the luge will be on this network in October?
DN: That’s about right. It’s roughly 100 days out when we usually try to get all of that information and great detail out there.
MCN: Will there be any place for Universal Sports in actual Games coverage?
DN: Actual Games coverage, no. But it’s still being determined to what degree they might be able to take part.
MCN: Will there be gigantic broadband and new-media components, like from Beijing?
DN: Remember the scale of the Winter Games versus the Summer Games is about a third, if that. I guess there were 35 different sports in Beijing. The scale is much smaller for the Winter Games. But at the same time, you can be sure that we will be providing coverage from each venue on multiple platforms. Again, it just kind of depends how it fits with the overall programming structure and philosophy that we’re coming up with.
MCN: Can Vancouver live up to what happened in Beijing, which, thanks in large part to Michael Phelps, was an incredible success?
DN: I think it’s apples and oranges really. I think there’ll be a more apt comparison in a couple of years when people are saying. 'Can London ever be the same that Beijing was?’ With the Winter games, we’ll be saying, 'How does Vancouver stack up against Torino?’ And I think in every aspect, really without exception, I think that it’ll be a favorable comparison.
MCN: Any differences in Vancouver from a programming standpoint?
DN: Well, you know the basic philosophy: [NBC’s coverage] is a primetime show, that’s the flagship and that will never change. You want to put on the most attractive properties and sports on at the time when most people can watch them and that’s primetime. And, happily for us, with the Games being in North America, that means that the vast majority of the coverage that we’ll have …
MCN: … will be between 8 and 11 [p.m.] East Coast time?
DN: Exactly. So again the similarities between Vancouver and what we enjoyed in Salt Lake City are striking and almost uniformly there across the board.
MCN: Did some of the major events roll past 11 p.m. in East Coast prime?
DN: Sometimes, particularly on figure skating, the long program.
MCN: Again, with some of the other networks involved, will we see additional kinds of up-close-and-personal, or technical stories?
DN: The interesting thing for me is that when I look back over eight Olympic Games, it’s hard to say that there are one or two things that we’ve never seen before in one iteration or another. We’ve employed I think all of the different tools in the toolbox over the years.
I think once you do find yourself with the great luxury of having the multiple platforms, traditional broadcast and cable, broadband, digital, all of that, it allows for storytelling in its various forms. I think that you’re right to suppose that you’ll see different sorts of storytelling, whether it’s with athlete profiles or technical pieces. The question is what ends up exactly where.
MCN: On Oct. 2, the host city will be selected for the Games in 2016. When will the bidding occur for the 2014 and 2016 Games?
DN: NBC is very interested in staying involved. But in terms of the timing, we really don’t have any idea. I think the [International Olympic Committee] is going to proceed as they see fit and we’ll work with whatever their timetable is.
MCN: Your hopes for Vancouver?
DN: I think that the power of the Olympic Games is as a huge property that brings entire families to the screen. You asked before about comparisons between Beijing and Vancouver and I’ll just say that Beijing reminded us that the Olympic Games is one of those very few remaining premium properties that stretch across all demographics and can bring a huge aggregate number of viewers together to the screen.
My expectation is Vancouver will display those very same qualities. And being in North America, the mostly live nature of what we’ll be able to show, particularly in primetime. I think that you will see the big event nature of the Olympics being seen in full force yet again come February.