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Columnist
Your guide to watching the games
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist

Bob Costas will play host to much of the main Olympics broadcast coverage on NBC's WMAQ Channel 5.

 

Shawn Johnson and her coach, Liang Chow

 

Kerri Walsh

 

Shawn Johnson

 

Tyson Gay

 

Misty May-Treanor

 

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Published: 8/6/2008 12:08 AM

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Are you ready for more Summer Olympics than ever before on TV? And yes, I mean more than ever before, combined.

NBC is planning to put its various TV networks, cable channels and Internet sites to work making an almost unbelievable 3,600 hours of Olympics programming available to U.S. viewers from Beijing starting with the opening ceremonies at 7 p.m. Friday on WMAQ Channel 5 and finishing with the closing ceremonies Aug. 24.

Keep in mind, not only are there only 408 hours in those 17 days, but starting with the 20 hours CBS devoted to the Summer Games in Rome in 1960 up through the 1,200 NBC presented from Athens in 2004, only about 2,500 hours of the Summer Olympics have ever aired in America on whatever delivery platform you're talking about. NBC will top that with 2,900 hours of live coverage alone from Beijing, much of it streaming on nbcolympics.com.

Yet, for all the saturation of coverage, you can also be sure that much of the remaining taped coverage will air on NBC and Channel 5, held for prime time and maximum viewership ratings. After all, not for nothing did NBC pay $894 million for the rights to the Beijing Summer Games as part of a $2.3 billion three-Olympics deal negotiated in the mid-'90s.

What does this mean for the viewer at home? As has become an Olympic tradition, people will kvetch about some events being saved on tape for prime time, while they spend the day trying not to find out what already happened via sports updates on radio and TV. NBC makes no apology for that.

"We are obviously trying to drive the largest possible audience at the time when they are available to watch," says Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports and its Olympics coverage, "and we have seen repeatedly through the years that the time that the vast majority of people are available to watch is in prime time."

The good news is that the 11-hour time difference between Beijing and Chicago will allow morning events in Beijing to air live in prime time here. There will be a live component to each night of programming, and the major events in the marquee sports of gymnastics, swimming and - yes, indeedy - beach volleyball will air in prime time.

In the meantime, NBC is hoping to throw any dog-day viewer complaining about the lack of live coverage a bone with the abundance of live events on nbcolympics.com, even if much of that figures to be dressage and the like.

The other Olympic tradition, however - and it's a joyous tradition that makes the Olympics what they still are - is the unpredictable. There is always some Olympic athlete or sport that suddenly captures the imagination, such as Shaun White, the "Flying Tomato," and the sudden vogue surrounding curling on cable TV at the last Winter Games in Torino, Italy. It wasn't long ago that beach volleyball was one of those vogue sports, and now Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh are two of the Olympians most hotly promoted as stars by NBC.

On that score, NBC is planning to make its coverage more fluid, with fewer prerecorded "up close and personal" profiles and more storytelling about the athletes in action on the part of the play-by-play commentators and analysts. That will put a huge onus on those commentators, but NBC Sports does still have an impressive roster, headed by Bob Costas, who will play host to the opening and closing ceremonies and much of the prime-time coverage. As for this Olympiad's unlikely hit, look out for BMX racing, sure to appeal to younger elements of the audience.

As for technical advances, Internet streaming aside, it seems NBC has gone about as far as it can go. Few innovations are planned, although NBC will still feature its "rail-cam" tracking device on the track and field events, as well as the spectacular "dive-cam," a camera on a plumb bob diving right into the water alongside the athletes at the pool. Look, too, for "StroMotion" shots, going beyond super-slo-mo to stop-action photography, as another tool for the various color analysts to use.

The NBC starmaking machinery took a couple of hits of late, as Paul Hamm dropped out of the gymnastics competition, and Abby Wambach was injured, depriving the U.S. women's soccer team of one of its best and most popular players. Yet here's a quick tour of the events and athletes we know will attract attention.

Michael Phelps

Phelps, one of the prime heroes from the Athens Games four years ago, begins another gold-medal rush with the test of versatility, the 400m IM, in prime time Saturday on WMAQ Channel 5. He's then slated to appear in prime time eight straight nights - nine if he takes part in the opening ceremonies.

Shawn Johnson

The women's all-around gymnastics final takes place Thursday night on Channel 5, featuring the Iowa pixie. She tries to get the hometown crowd on her side with the help of her Beijing coaches.

Dara Torres

The 41-year-old is swimming faster than ever in the drag race of swimming, the 50m freestyle, and she goes for gold Aug. 16 in prime time.

100m dash

The winner of this race, also slated for prime time Aug. 16, earns the title of world's fastest human. Look for U.S. sprinter Tyson Gay and Jamaica's Asafa Powell to be in the hunt.

Women's beach volleyball

May-Treanor and Walsh try to defend their title from Athens. When's the men's final, you ask? Does anybody really care?

Men's basketball final

After spending most of their time on USA, the U.S. men's team tries to avenge its embarrassing performance in Athens with a live appearance on Channel 5 in the late-night final on the penultimate day of the Games, Aug. 23. Of course, it could easily be two other teams playing instead.

That all leads into the closing ceremonies Aug. 24. By that time, viewers might well be sick of the Olympics, but more than likely they'll have been charmed by a new set of global sports heroes.

Tuning in

What: The Summer Olympic Games in Beijing

When: Opening ceremonies at 7 p.m. Friday, closing ceremonies at 6 p.m. Aug. 24 and daily coverage in between.

Where: On NBC and its cable siblings, but with most main events broadcast on WMAQ Channel 5.

On the Web: nbcolympics.com