Livin“ On Beijing Time

Week No. 1 of Olympics coverage brings kudos and criticism for NBC
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NBC is pulling in vast viewership for the 2008 Summer Games despite brickbats over computer-generated theatrics and time-zone conflicts. U.S. viewers forgave, as demonstrated by their numbers--more than 3.5 times as many NBC“s pre-Olympics prime time.

Fellow engineers at competing networks were likewise impressed. The Beijing Games represent the biggest live, hi-def, multi-venue, multi-feed, multi-camera, multiplatform TV coverage of the most simultaneous events 6,800 miles from a network operation center. In 5.1 surround sound.

““Otherworldly.“ “Fantastic.“ “Mesmerizing.“ My preferred adjectives to describe the opening ceremonies to the games,” said a self-described “broken-down old analog cameraman who masquerades as a television facility manager.”

“Here“s my favorite part--the 2008 drummers with the lights in their drums. When they would cut to the wide shot during the performance, a drummer who was as little as 250 milliseconds off would be out of sync. You could see a few in the large group in each wide shot or transition. These “errors“ were what made the show so spectacular. In a melding of technology and humanity, the off-sync moments were human! And to me, they enhanced the show and kept it from being sterile.”

The opening ceremony on Friday, Aug. 8, pulled in an 18.8 in what Nielsen refers to as “Live+SDLive,” or live viewing plus recorded content played back the same day. The NBC took the top spot for the week of Aug. 4-10 with the opener and held onto second and third place with Saturday (13.9) and Sunday (18.1) prime-time Olympics coverage.

The network took hits from critics for using computer-generated graphics to enhance the opening ceremony fireworks over Bird“s Nest stadium, even though the host broadcaster, Beijing Olympics Broadcasting, originated the special effect. NBC announcer Matt Lauer mentioned that it was “almost animation,” and his colleague, Bob Costas, referred to it as “literally cinematic.” The footage in question comprised 55 seconds of fiery footprints crossing over the top of the stadium.

NBC also was taken to task by The New York Times for how “live” coverage was represented. Beijing is 12 hours ahead of the Eastern Time zone in the United States, so events shown live in prime time on the East Coast are delayed three hours for prime time on the West Coast.

Ratings over the course of the week did not appear to be affected by the criticisms. Instead, the drama surrounding swimmer Michael Phelps“ world-record pursuit fueled a primetime average rating of around 17, or more than 20 million homes, according to Nielsen.

The numbers are a boost for NBC, now fourth among the original Big Three networks after having been displaced by Fox. NBC“s season-to-date prime-time rating through mid-July was a 4.8, or 5.4 million homes. (One rating point equals 1 percent of the total number of TV households in the United States, now estimated to be 112,800,000.)

Advertisers responded by plunking down another $10 million for ads during the first week of coverage, in addition to the $1 billion sold before the Games started.