Contrary to the mindset of the average American viewer recently, the next big event in Australia is not Survivor II.
It's the Sydney Olympics, of course, but unlike CBS's runaway summer hit, there are no guarantees these Games will capture the nation's imagination. Summer vacations have come and gone. Pennant races are heating up and NFL and college football seasons are under way.
For the most part, the biggest question surrounding these tape-delayed Olympics has had nothing to do with scandal or Marion Jones' pursuit of five gold medals. It has been: "When are they again?"
But NBC is convinced there will be an audience for its 441.5 hours of coverage planned for three networks: 162.5 hours on NBC, 214 on MSNBC and 65 on CNBC. It will be the first time Olympics coverage will be on cable, and the first time since the disastrous pay-per-view Triplecast in 1992 that a network has provided alternative ways to view coverage.
None of it will be live _ 8 p.m. in Sydney will be prime Olympics time, and that's 5 a.m. in New York and 2 a.m. in Los Angeles. All the major events will be shown long after they are over, during NBC's 7 p.m.-midnight prime time coverage.
This time the network is being up-front about it. Unlike its laughable "plausibly live" theme from the Atlanta Games _ where events that occurred earlier were often presented as if they were live _ NBC isn't trying to pretend you won't know who won the men's 100 meters or the women's gymnastics all-around gold medal. It is even encouraging people to find out, touting its expanded nbcolympics.com Web site, which will feature up-to-the-minute results.
The challenge is to keep people interested. What NBC is counting on is that people will tune in anyway for the stories that have become the hallmark of Olympics coverage.
"Story telling is our mantra," NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said. "It is what we do. It is certainly going to be the primary component of our coverage on the NBC television network. It's what Americans expect. It's what the largest audience is going to be used to seeing, and we're not going to disappoint them, that's for sure."
What the NBC will have this time is plenty for the hard-core Olympics fan, and unlike with the Triplecast, all you need is cable to access it. MSNBC and CNBC will air more than 20 sports and 30 gold-medal finals.
CNBC will show boxing _ a sport the network says has been traditionally hard to find a place for _ every night from 5 to 7. MSNBC will focus on team sports, including women's soccer, where the U.S. women will be defending their 1996 Olympic title _ an event Americans didn't get to see four years ago.
NBC heard the criticisms of its 171.5 hours of coverage from Atlanta: too little women's team sports, too few international stories, too much John Tesh (he's absent from the gymnastics coverage this time around). Olympics cable coordinating producer Molly Solomon thinks viewers will respond to the new options and updated philosophy.
"I recall in 1996 there was a triple overtime basketball game between Lithuania and Croatia, and I was frustrated because there was no room for it," Solomon said. "But now our commitment on the cable side is that we will alter our schedule to accommodate things that happen. We can and we will react to whatever happens in Sydney."
Fifteen hours' lead time makes that easier to do.
AH, AUSTRALIA: Live or not, these Games will be lovely. Expect Sydney's exquisite waterfront to repeatedly work its way into broadcasts. "It is a place that is impossible not to get your attention," producer David Neal said. "Americans have a built-in interest in Australia."
JUST FOR KIDS: MSNBC will air Scholastic of the Olympic Games weekdays from 3 to 5 p.m. during the Olympics. Hosted by Jim Lampley and featuring Summer Sanders, the show is "a way to reach young people and try and teach them about the Olympics" and Australia, Solomon said. The show will follow 12 American Olympians under the age of 21 through the Games.
DID YOU KNOW?: Tape-delayed or not, NBC's competition was wary enough to meddle with the traditional TV season, which usually begins in September. The other networks, Ebersol said, "went to Nielsen and made sure the new season would not begin until Oct. 1." That means the Olympics will not help NBC in the overall average for the season.
But don't cry for the network. It will benefit from heavy promotion during the Games of its new series.
"The value of the promotion time is in the tens of millions," said John Miller, NBC's president of advertising and promotion.
ERROR- THE LAST WORD: Ebersol, when asked how NFL games and baseball, including pennant races, would affect viewership: "I don't think the Tampa Bay (Devil Rays) games are going to get people slathered up. . . . If there's that one person (in the household) who is desperate to watch a game with 4,327 people in the ballpark in Tampa Bay, . . . I'm sure dad can sneak off and watch that." Maybe so, Dick, but don't expect Tampa Bay's undivided attention on Sundays.
_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.
By the numbers
Cost to NBC for exclusive rights to the Sydney Games: $705-million
Cost to NBC for rights to the 1988 and 1992 Games combined: $701-million
Cost to CBS for rights to the 1960 Olympics: $394,000
Amount NBC expects to generate for advertising: $900-million
Countries visited for Olympic profiles: 40
Full- and part-time NBC staff in Sydney: 1,812
Video tape recorders used: 400
Total hours of coverage NBC has planned for all three networks: 441.5
Hours of live event coverage: 0
Summer Olympic ratings (prime time)
Year Hours Rating
1972 41 24.4
1976 54 23.9
1984 82 23.2
1988 78.75 17.9
1992 74 17.5
1996 77 21.5
2000 84 17.5-18.5
The broadcast team
HOSTS: Bob Costas (prime time, late night), Hannah Storm (weekday morning and daytime weekend), Katie Couric (opening ceremonies), Jim Lampley (MSNBC) and Pat O'Brien (CNBC).
SPORTS DESK REPORTERS: Mike Adamle, Dr. Bob Arnot, Donna De Varona, Sara James, Andrea Joyce, Ahmad Rashad, Jimmy Roberts, Summer Sanders, Harry Smith.
ARCHERY: John Dockery.
BASEBALL: Ted Robinson, Joe Magrane.
MEN'S BASKETBALL: Mike Breen, Doug Collins, Craig Sager, Peter Vecsey.
WOMEN'S BASKETBALL: Mike Breen, Ann Meyers Drysdale, Craig Sager.
BEACH VOLLEYBALL: Jim Watson, Mike Dodd, Bill Walton.
BOXING: Marv Albert, Teddy Atlas, Fred Roggin.
CANOE/KAYAK: Jon Lugbill, Gary Thorne, Len Berman.
DIVING: Cynthia Potter, Dan Hicks, Andrea Joyce.
EQUESTRIAN: Tim Ryan, Melanie Smith-Taylor, Harry Smith.
GYMNASTICS: Tim Daggett, Elfi Schlegel, Al Trautwig, Tom Hammond, Beth Ruyak.
MOUNTAIN BIKE: Phil Liggett.
RHYTHMIC GYMNASTICS: Michele Tafoya, Elfi Schlegel, Beth Ruyak.
ROAD CYCLING: Al Trautwig, Phil Liggett.
ROWING: Gary Thorne, Yasmin Farooq, Len Berman.
MEN'S SOCCER: Andres Cantor, Alexi Lalas.
WOMEN'S SOCCER: Andres Cantor, Amy Allmann.
SAILING: Gary Jobson.
SOFTBALL: Michele Tafoya, Tracy Warren.
SYNCHRONIZED SWIMMING: Tracy Ruiz-Conforto, Ted Robinson, Andrea Joyce.
SWIMMING: Rowdy Gaines, Dan Hicks, Jim Gray.
TENNIS: Bud Collins, Mary Carillo.
TRACK CYCLING: Phil Liggett, Jessica Greico.
TRACK AND FIELD: Tom Hammond, Dwight Stones, Carol Lewis, Lewis Johnson, Marty Liquori, Frank Shorter, Jim Gray.
TRIATHLON: Al Trautwig.
VOLLEYBALL: Chris Marlowe, Paul Sunderland, Bill Walton.
WATER POLO: Bob Papa, Jim Kruse.
WEIGHTLIFTING: Ernie Johnson, Sam Maxwell.
WRESTLING: Russ Hellickson, Jeff Blatnick, Mike Adamle.