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Olympic Bet May Pay Off for NBC

Olympic TV is inherently risky.

Networks can pay Olympic TV rights fees so far in advance - NBC plunked down $820 million for the Vancouver Games in 2003 - only psychics could be confident if it will pay off. And unlike networks carrying sports with seasons that last months, Olympic TV ultimately boils down to two high-stakes weeks.

So far, NBC is on a wild ride in Vancouver.

First, mediagenic skier Lindsay Vonn suggested a shin bruise would keep her from competing. Then, slushy weather postponed what would have been marquee NBC action - Alpine skiing - which, in turn, gives Vonn more time to recover and possibly pop up as a ratings-grabber.

From the Olympic torch apparatus at Friday's opening ceremonies at first not working - threatening to give these Games a leaden lead-in - to TV star Apolo Anton Ohno skating by crashing competitors to win his sixth Olympic medal Saturday night, NBC is catching some breaks. Such as when Johnny Spillane on Sunday won the first-ever U.S. medal in the sport of Nordic combined on NBC live. It happened as viewers from Fox's Daytona 500, after a long delay for track repair, might have wandered over.

But NBC had to respond Friday to a tragedy - the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, a luger from Georgia - that required unusual sensitivity. If NBC ignored the footage of the fatal crash, it would look like the network was covering up for a sports event it paid so dearly to cover. If it aired the footage too often, it could come across ghoulish hype.

NBC ended up handling it sensibly. After replaying the footage on its evening news and opening ceremony Friday, NBC announced Saturday that it wouldn't replay the footage for the rest of the Games. But NBC, appropriately, didn't back off on its luge coverage as analyst John Morgan said Sunday: "This is still the fastest luge competition we've ever had."

It's too early to say how NBC's efforts will play out at the TV box office. NBC's ratings should be up over the 2006 Torino Winter Games, given Vancouver doesn't present as many time-zone challenges as Torino, which produced the lowest-rated Games in the USA since 1988.

NBC's early returns are promising. Its prime-time Saturday drew 14 percent of U.S. TV households, up 4 percent from the second Olympic night in 2006, but that night included figure skating. Friday's Vancouver prime time drew 17.3 percent - a whopping 35 percent jump over comparable coverage in 2006.

NBC has an ace in its Olympic experience. Its on-air crew - particularly Bob Costas, Al Michaels, Mary Carillo and, for understated gravitas, Tom Brokaw - has been as about as smooth TV sports ever gets.

In Canada's fans, it has lively extras. As analyst A.J. Mleczko noted about Canada's 18-0 win against Slovakia in women's ice hockey: "This place erupted even with the 15th goal."

Even so, NBC is ultimately riding a reality show it can't script. It needs thrills to sell sports that most viewers don't watch outside the Games. Like Ohno's win, which announcer Ted Robinson identified as one of those Olympic moments that can draw audiences by offering an escape from the ordinary: "Just in case you've missed this sport in the last four years, America, welcome back."

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