Despite All the Problems in Rio, Ratings for the Olympics Could Be the Highest Ever

NBC plans 6,755 hours of programming

Three days before the Rio Olympics are set to kick off, NBC execs are keeping their fingers crossed that their coverage will be focused more on the athletes and competition, and not on all the other issues plaguing Rio in the run-up to the games.

NBCUniversal is offering 6,755 hours of Rio Olympic programming overall, including 2,084 hours of coverage across 11 linear networks. NBC alone will broadcast 260.5 hours of coverage. The result is "one of the biggest endeavors in media history," said NBC Olympics executive producer Jim Bell, who spoke via satellite from Rio to reporters at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour in L.A.

And given that Rio is just one hour ahead of the East Coast, much of NBC's prime-time coverage will air live (though the opening ceremony will be on a one-hour delay).

After months of "political pie fights" and other sad national and international news, "I think America is ready … to get some relief from all of that," said NBC Olympics correspondent Mary Carillo.

But will that actually happen? While all Olympic host cities risk major issues going into the games, "Rio probably has the biggest array of problems or potential problems," said Bob Costas, who will once again host NBC's prime-time coverage. That includes environmental, economic and safety issues in Rio de Janeiro, including a police crisis, questions about infrastructure, the polluted Guanabara Bay and the Zika virus.

Those pre-games concerns usually end up fading into the background as the Olympics get under way, and "we hope it will be the same [in Rio], because there are so many great stories of the athletes," said Costas.

"We're here to cover the Olympics. Should it be a story while we're here, we'll cover it," said Bell, who told reporters last month that he was "cautiously optimistic" that the Summer Games would be a success despite those concerns.

That said, "it's going to be impossible in some cases not to address issues that have come up before the Olympics, because they will intersect with the competition," said Costas. "Every competition that takes place on open water, you've got to talk about the conditions of the water … In some cases the best [some swimmers have] been told is 'Try to keep your mouth closed.'"

Bell said he doesn't think NBCUniversal and Comcast should have leveraged their significant financial commitment (not including production costs, NBC is paying approximately $1.28 billion for rights to the Rio Olympics) to force the International Olympic Committee to move the games, given the variety of issues in Rio.

"We live in a world where there are going to be issues wherever you're going to have the games. Right now, I think you could probably make a case that Zika is a bigger story in Florida than in Rio, where it is technically winter and much cooler and drier. So, is Disneyland responsible for bringing people to Florida now?" he said.

Added Costas, "You can make an argument that the IOC should have, in light of the problems as they emerged several months ago … considered either moving or postponing the games … But once the games were being held, the network that owned the rights to televise those games was going to televise those games. The question about our responsibility becomes, 'How thoroughly and credibly do you cover it?'"

Despite the negative stories surrounding the Olympics, awareness and intent to watch is higher than ever, said Bell. According to NBC's research team, "those numbers are as high as they've ever been, even a little bit higher than they were headed into London," he said. Those 2012 Olympics averaged 31.1 million viewers in NBC's prime-time coverage.

NBCUniversal's $1.28 billion investment in the games also didn't give the company any leverage when it came to trying to push for certain events to be scheduled so they could air live in prime time. "The scheduling of the events is an IOC matter," said Bell. "We might have some preferences, and I think sometimes things break our way and sometimes they don't, but at the end of the day, it falls to the IOC to schedule the events."

Not everyone watching NBC prime time will see live coverage; the West Coast's linear feed will be on a three-hour delay, said Bell. But "if you're on the West Coast and you want to watch it live, you can stream it live. And what we've found is people who stream tend to actually watch more television rather than have it cannibalize our audience, so we're all for people consuming the Olympics as much as possible on as many devices as possible, whenever they want."

With 6,755 hours of Rio Olympic programming, how can viewers consume it all? "I have no idea. Good luck!" said Bell with a laugh, who then recommended starting at NBCOlympics.com. "You'll figure it out, and it will be pretty darn painless."

Bell shot down reports that NBC tried to get the IOC to change the opening ceremony running order, moving the U.S. athlete introduction to the end to increase ratings for the full broadcast. "That story was false," he said.