Q&A with Jim Bell, Executive Producer of NBC Olympics
Q: Does the coverage of every medal and every minute for every screen keep you up at night?
Jim: What used to keep me up at night was the fact that it wasn’t out there -- that it was difficult for people to find archery, sailing or shooting. To be able to have all these sports covered for fans out there is fantastic. If you think just 20 years ago, in the Atlanta games of 1996, NBC broadcast a grand total of 171 and a half hours of Olympic coverage. We’ll do more than that in Rio in the first half-day. So it’s a thrill and an honor to be able to share the full range of the Olympic experience with the audience in so many ways.
Q: How has the audience evolved?
Jim: I have four teenage boys who only watch television if they have another device in their hands. I increasingly have adopted that habit, for better or for worse. Viewers want different screens, with the ability to watch what you want to watch, where you want to watch it, on the screen you want to watch it on. We have fortunately, with Comcast, been able to help people do that.
Q: What kind of team do you have working behind the scenes?
Jim: It’s a team that has acquired great experience over the years and games that many of us have done. We sort of measure ourselves like tree ring circles. "How many Olympics have you done?" "I’ve done four." "I’ve done five." "I’ve done 10" -- and there are others who have done more. We have collective wisdom, experience and knowledge. But also, nobody is afraid to take a risk. It is never Groundhog Day at the Olympics. We don't just say, "Wash, rinse, repeat -- let’s go do that again." A lot of what we did was great, and we’ve got a good feeling that Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps are two guys we’re probably going to be covering in Rio. But there are other athletes that we need to introduce to form that connection with people in the audience. Our team is spectacular at that.
Q: How did Symphony help you partner with other teams amidst so many moving parts?
Jim: The Olympics have long been a big part of NBC, covering every Summer Olympics since 1988 in Seoul. That’s quite a ways back. But the company is so much bigger with all these movie studios, theme parks and various assets. I think what’s been great about Symphony and the discipline around it is knowing that we‘re going to need to talk to people and let them help us, and then we’re going to be able to help them back while we’ve got this crazy mass audience during the Olympics. People talk to each other, and everybody gets on the same page. It is, to borrow a tired but important phrase, being unsiloed. It’s come together pretty well these last few Olympics.
Q: How is technology eliminating or creating challenges for you?
Jim: With regard to technology, we obviously want to embrace it because we see these seismic changes in how people are consuming our content. The odd thing about the Olympics is you really have to make some bets pretty far out, because these games are happening every two years. We’re making decisions now about Korea for the next Winter Olympics. So things have to get ordered, things have to get shipped, things have to get put together. You have to figure out what you're going to do well before it takes place. That is, in a way, a challenge.
But I think what comes together in the end makes it the triumph that it has been so far: this laboratory for the future. We’re seeing consumption of content on this mass scale on all these screens at all these different times of day. We’re seeing how it impacts people’s behavior. There’s research showing how 50 percent of viewers delayed usual household chores just to watch the Olympics. The shift in that is great. I’m sure a lot of that has to do with people no longer needing to be affixed to a television set to watch the Olympics. They can have it on all these various screens and streaming wirelessly and be at work watching it. It’s great that what we’ve seen, especially once we opened the spigot with live streaming, is that more screens has meant more consumption. It hasn’t cannibalized one thing or the other so far. It has been the rising tide that has lifted all Olympic boats.
Q: What has you most excited about Comcast’s technologies and the future of television?
Jim: I’m around this stuff a lot. It’s my job. But I was really blown away by the X1. There’s a distinction sometimes in our line of work when we’re covering these sports, and it’s your job. Occasionally, you miss some of that passion you had as a pure sports fan. When I saw the X1, I felt like a kid. I was like, "Look at that! That’s so cool. I want to touch that and play with that and see how it works and get involved in it." I was blown away. It was a different kind of feeling. It’s very exciting to be a part of that. And I think it will transform media consumption and behavior.