Tonight, the Games of the XXII Olympiad begin in Sochi, Russia. We've heard nightmare stories about toilets, quality of hotels and overall unpleasantness toward a wide swath of humanity coming out of Russia. The actual competition beginning won't quell those points of outrage, but it will at least force us to focus our attention on the athletes, who are deserving of it.
NBC's coverage also begins tonight, with the first ever primetime coverage in the night before the Opening Ceremonies. Everything really begins in earnest — you know, the marathon coverage over multiple networks — on Saturday in the wee hours with the United States women's hockey team's first pool play game at 3 a.m. ET on NBCSN. Here are some storylines, from a pure coverage standpoint, for the networks of NBC.
1) How much general interest "news" will bleed into the sports broadcast?
We all know that the Olympics have the potential to be a human rights disaster, between Russia's anti-gay propaganda laws and just the general disarray the country appears to be in. NBC has said that the news division will adequately cover much of these stories, as they'll be on-site in Sochi.
But how much of this will make it onto the primetime broadcast? Will an LGBT Olympian who wins a medal become a massive story? Will there be special focus on the conditions in the Athletes Village or in the press quarters? Will Bob Costas' room have a working toilet? These are the questions the public needs answers to, obviously.
2) Will NBC get Putin?
Bob Costas has said that the news division is working on getting a sitdown with the controversial leader. Will he submit to a sitdown, and how much leeway will Costas be given to grill Putin? It could certainly be the media moment of the Olympics if this lived up to its potential.
3) Who will the stars be?
Outside of the NHL players who are coming to the Olympics, Shaun White, Ted Ligety and Shani Davis are really the lone big names in Sochi with Lindsey Vonn reduced to TV work. Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane will be working in the middle of the morning on cable, so it's likely NBC will have to use other options and create stars.
The American figure skating team doesn't seem to have much buzz, but that sport can always jolt life into the Olympics. Is Mikaela Shiffrin the breakout star NBC needs in place of Vonn? Can Bode Miller redeem himself? You can bet NBC will do their best to keep these names and any other potential buzz athletes on the frontburner.
4) Will NBC's feature story on Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan turn into a sideshow?
We don't yet know just how much of the most anticipated "reunion" in Olympic history will be shown on NBC. It's an obvious ringer for primetime on one of the five big TV nights (Sundays-Thursdays) during the Games.
My question is: if the games start to lag, ratings-wise, would NBC let the story sort of take over the primetime show? Is there enough of this for an hour-long feature? A two-hour long feature? How much is NBC banking on people's nostalgia for one of the biggest Olympic events ever to keep ratings up?
5) Can NBCSN inch closer toward mainstream network-dom by having the most coverage?
NBCSN drew solid cable numbers during the Olympics in London, including their highest audiences ever for the finals of the women's soccer tournament. NBCSN will have a lot of hockey, and at least one gold medal awarded live per day in Sochi. They're also going to be in 85 million homes (more than ever before) by the start of the games. Is this the network's big break?
6) Can NBC come close to their Vancouver ratings success?
The fact is, they probably won't, just because they can't show anything live in primetime when it's the middle of the night in Sochi. But I'd be shocked if they didn't pass up the somewhat buzzless Torino games just out of viewer curiosity about Russia. It could be similar to how highly rated the Beijing games were, with audiences getting a glimpse of a controversial place they've never seen before.
Will they be blockbusters on the level of Beijing, Vancouver and London? No. But NBC certainly will have no trouble riding its way to ratings success in Sochi.