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Full transcript: NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel on Recode Decode

“The people of Rio and Brazil have never wavered from their commitment to delivering a successful Olympics.”

Vjeran Pavic for Recode

On a recent episode of Recode Decode, NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel spoke with Recode’s Ina Fried about the upcoming Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

You can read some of the highlights from Gary’s interview with Ina at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.

If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Decode on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.

Transcript by Maya Goldberg-Safir.


Ina Fried: Gary, you've been doing this Olympics thing for a while now, since 1997 you've been involved with the broadcast, right? Talk about how things have changed in your time.

Gary Zenkel: Sure. My first Olympics was in 1992. I came to NBC as a lawyer so my role was limited to some contract work back then. But then did work on Atlanta and ever since... Atlanta in 1996 was one television channel with 171 total hours of coverage. I believe as we've recently announced, Rio will be a total of 6,700 or so hours of Olympic coverage distributed across 11 different channels and of course digital platforms. Web, mobile, set top, etc. So it’s changed quite a bit since 1996.

It’s a wildly complex operation.

So that's kind of how many hours and how you see it, I imagine a lot has changed in how you produce it and what it takes to go into it. In addition to just more people for more hours, was that even in HD, for the Atlanta games?

No! Of course not. Although I must tell you that we did begin to experiment with HD back in 2002 with the Salt Lake City Olympics before there was any HD content available — there were a couple of venues. But in any event no of course it wasn't, it is now fully HD. And even advancing — slowly we'll test out a 4k platform or format with a few hours in Rio. But the complexity of course of producing 6,000 hours versus 171 is enormous. It’s taken more people, but more than the additional amount of people, it’s equipment, technology, it’s moving a lot of content around, some of which we now take back to the States and produce several of our cable platforms from there. We process a lot of the digital content that we distribute out of our home base in Stamford, Connecticut. So it’s a wildly complex operation that has taken full advantage of the advancements of both broadcast and digital technology that have happened at a rapid pace over the past couple of decades.

So most of the faces that we're used to seeing, those people will be on the ground in Brazil, but there are some of the shows, some of the cable shows that are actually produced here in the States?

They are. Of course, competition is produced [laughs] —

No athletes!

In NJ, right, only former athletes, in Stamford, Connecticut. So yes, we will have roughly 1,100 people that will operate out of our broadcast facility in Stamford, NBC sports group's home international broadcast center. We'll do it out of about seven control rooms and eight different studios. Sixty different edit rooms. A highlights factory. Where we take in all of the feeds and all of the content and slice it up in different forms, about 280 feature pieces a day. So that's sort of the craft edit content and then the rest we’re cutting those highlights and virtually everything that's going on. There's a very sophisticated logging system. And we take all that content and we code it for the platform that we're distributing to, whether it’s mobile, web, whether it’s set top VOD, connected television, we're pushing out content to some of the social media networks. Out of home, health clubs and taxi cabs and gas stations and — so circulation of content is something that we're very serious about and have found that the more content we make available, the more accessible it is, the more viewing that we're seeing in our television broadcast.

And that was the big concern with trying out livestreaming in London: If we do all this livestreaming, is that gonna hurt primetime? And what did you guys find?

We found it had the opposite effect. The more content that was consumed on the more devices, yielded more actual television viewing time from those consumers.

And what’s some of the psychology behind that? Because I imagine the thinking initially was if they're watching it then they don’t wanna see it again. I imagine that what you guys found was that actually watching highlights or getting scores on your mobile device is not really an ideal experience for really seeing it, that people wanna see the actual event on their biggest screen. Is that generally what you think's going on?

Yeah, I think it’s the difference, it really highlights the difference between the Olympics, which is as much a cultural event as it is a sports event, and the audience that comes to the Olympics, which is massive and very diverse demographically, in every aspect. They're coming for the stories and to share in those incredible epic moments that happen only during the Olympics every couple of years. And so the information that gets circulated during the course of an Olympic day, whether — since London — it’s in the form of a livestream or a highlight. Before London, it was a tremendous amount of results information that was made available when the internet started publishing that type of content. We have found that that has really fueled the conversation. It has fueled the interest. And especially when the stories are good ones. When there is American victories or other great stories, great rivalries that have been developed, either by us or otherwise. It turns more of the conversation, leads to more viewing, more of that prime-time shared experience that the Olympics has built an incredible franchise on the back of.

We’re gonna get a ton into the new technologies and the new social platforms that really are making this Olympics different than some of the ones in the past, but I wanna start with the basics. How is the average American who watches most of their content on their TV, linear TV, how are they gonna be able to see the Olympics? You mentioned that many hours, couldn't possibly do it with one channel, I know you guys are doing it with a lot of channels. Obviously NBC will be the home for I imagine the marquee events, how are you looking at the other channels?

Well everybody behaves differently, but here would be a somewhat typical linear television Olympic day, which would start with the "Today" show, most likely, 7 am broadcast that will originate from one end of Copacabana Beach, building a very sophisticated set out there. To pick up really the energy that Rio has so much of, especially no doubt around the period of the Olympics. And so the "Today" show in its typical Olympic fashion will bring people up to date on what perhaps was really moving them the day before. Athletes will join the "Today" show crew, interviews, and they will no doubt move around Rio and offer their audience an opportunity to experience the culture, the people, the topography, which is amazing. They'll talk a lot about what is happening that day and that will lead the person who has time to sit in front of a television either to NBC network, which will continue with a daytime show, anchored from the other end of Copacabana Beach — again, right on the beach with a few of our hosts — moving the audience around from probably some of the most compelling events that's happening at that moment, late morning into the afternoon. NBC Sports Network, which is NBC's sports linear home, starts at 8 o'clock every morning, goes til midnight. So the entire broadcast day is on NBC Sports Network and you'll see a lot of the Team USA team competition — soccer, basketball, volleyball, water polo and many other sports — if you have a keen interest in other sports, USA Network picks up during the course of the afternoon. MSNBC also during the course of the afternoon and CNBC comes on when the market closes at 5 and runs up to the prime-time show at 8 o'clock. If you're a golf fan and it happens to be the final four days of the first week or the final four days of the second week, you're gonna tune into the Golf Channel and you're gonna watch the first Olympic golf tournament in 120 years, or 100 years.

And I imagine you're personally pretty excited about that. For those of you who don’t know, you played golf at the University of Michigan.

I am. I believe that though the Olympics will not be obviously deemed a golf major (those are the Big 4 every year), it will be an event that the world's best care deeply about.

And golf used to be a big Olympic sport! Most people don’t know, but way back when ...

Well, it was a century ago. Um, before my time, but yes it was an Olympic sport. In any event, just to continue with the day, if you're a tennis fan, the entire tennis tournament is on Bravo, that's through the afternoon and into the evening. If you wanna watch Spanish-language coverage, whether you're Spanish, Hispanic or otherwise, Telemundo picks it up in the morning and into the afternoon and NBC Universo, which is our Spanish-language cable network, picks it up until 8 o'clock at night. There will be a few big soccer games in the evening that Universo will stay with. And then you're into the prime-time show, which is 8 to midnight. That’s Bob Costas hosting that. It has some of the marquee events that have historically drawn the biggest U.S. audiences, whether it’s swimming live, beach volleyball live, track and field live, gymnastics, diving, many other sports. But those tend to be the marquee. And then if you're still hungry, Ryan Seacrest hosts our late-night show which picks up after late local news at 12:30 back on Copacabana beach. At 1:30 in the morning, Rio time, we expect the beach to be very much alive. And he will no doubt talk about some of the big events that day, have some athletes, have some others and lead us into 7 am the next morning, when the "Today" show starts again.

So that’s a really long day of traditional television. There's obviously a lot more ways that people are consuming content. How do you guys approach on-demand, how do you approach livestreaming, and then I imagine this year a lot around social, whether it’s Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, how do you guys think about this and then how is that experience gonna be for viewers?

Sure. Well, let me start with the digital foundation which is our website, NBC Olympics.com, and our mobile apps, the NBC Sports app and NBC Olympics app. We've had these products offered to the American viewer since 2000. In their infancy, they were a companion to linear television coverage. It was schedules, it was results, as technology allowed it was an occasional highlight. And then eventually we began to offer coverage of live events. As you mentioned before, in 2012, we began to livestream every second of competition coverage and that's 3,000+ hours. There, in any one day, we're taking in about 100 different live events streams and pushing them out again, on the web and on our mobile platforms. Could be up to 40 simultaneous feeds because there are some venues like tennis where there are three or four courts going on at one time. There isn't a second of competition coverage that an American consumer can't watch. We will lay down commentary against all of these and for the core fan of any one of those sports, or fans of any one of those athletes, or fans of nations that perhaps — or nations of origin for them — there's an opportunity to view. We take the mobile app, which has every second of that competition coverage plus opportunities to replay events, plus the opportunity to watch simultaneously with the linear broadcast, those linear broadcast feeds, and we make 'em available on connected TV devices, Apple, Roku, Xbox, others. Now they're all behind the authentication wall, which we can talk about if —

So basically you need a cable subscription that covers just one of the cable channels?

Well it covers the most distributed of our cable channels. So basically anybody with a cable satellite subscription can view this digital package of content. And so we evolved! In the cable ecosystem, with the cable satellite and telco companies as our partners —

It’s not what it was two decades ago ... Today the attention of the audience is far more fragmented.

Yeah, I remember way back when there was like a Pay Per View, triplecast, gold, silver, bronze ...

Yes, well, that was back in ‘92 and we typically try to avoid talking about that. Yes! But that was an effort back in ‘92, because there was always this massive content that was available from the host broadcast. Back in the day when we were one channel, there was a lot of content that was not being made available. The triplecast was an effort to make that available, but the decision was made to charge a fee, which proved not to be the prudent one. The better decision was made to go to the cable industry and partner with the cable industry and we have continued to as I've just discussed, to distribute more and more content, in more and more ways, making it accessible.

So if somebody knows they wanna tune in, there’s no shortage of ways, you're not gonna miss a minute of content, if you know what you want. One of the ways you guys are looking at social is: How do we get people interested in things that they don’t know they want, but that they know their friends are interested in. You have some deals with Snapchat and BuzzFeed. Talk about those specifics, and then how you guys think about social media playing a role. Obviously your goal is to keep me watching as many hours of program as I can keep my eyes open for.

That’s correct, and so we certainly have learned that in order to engage and reach and connect with the potential massive Olympic audience, it’s not what it was two decades ago when promotion on NBC and some of the other channels and some paid media and some radio, and you'd pretty much have alerted your audience that the Olympics was coming, and why they should watch. Today the attention of the audience is far more fragmented. The influences of some of the platforms that people spend a lot of their media consumption time on are important, and so we have for a long time been working with those influencers, in this case social media companies, to inspire their audiences to watch and consume the Olympics. Our strategy has never changed, it has always been about connecting our audience with the athletes and their stories. Giving them a reason to care. These are athletes and individuals who are incredibly relatable and yet participate in sports and endeavors that the audience is typically not that familiar with.

The kinds of segments that we've seen in the past, the up close and personal where in the prime-time segment they cut us away and take us back into their backstory, often, you know, people overcoming great odds or a lot of tragedy to be on the Olympic stage, is that the kind of thing we'll see on Snapchat and social media?

Well, just to clarify, the human stories are not always about human tragedy and overcoming all kinds of obstacles. Sometimes they are, and that is something that an audience can find a way to relate to. But many of those stories are also about just ways in which characteristics of these incredible individuals that people can relate to, whether it’s about the music or who inspired them, etc. In any event, yes, that is one way in which we will work with the social media companies, is to connect with athletes. But what we won't do is impose on a company like BuzzFeed or on a partner like BuzzFeed or Snapchat, our production sensibility, but rather use their expertise and their ability to connect to the audience that they speak to so effectively, to produce and distribute content that is gonna inspire. One, make people aware, but two, inspire an interest, a curiosity, in the stories, in the athletes, in the rivalries.

A partnership that we're very excited about — I mentioned both — is with BuzzFeed and with Snapchat, somewhat related. We will work with Snapchat on the production of a Discovery channel, if you're familiar with their platform. BuzzFeed, who is a company that we, NBCUniversal, have an interest in, but is also a very clear expert in producing content for the Discovery platform as well as of course in other social media destinations. We will have 12, 13 BuzzFeed producers living side by side and working side by side with us in Rio, providing access, the access that we have [to] athletes, talent, a little bit of guidance on what we think the audience might deem the most engaging, and in some cases where we're leading the audience but never dictating the sensibility and the style with which they produce those stories.

And that's fairly new. I mean, in general, NBC has widely used its own in-house networks and expertise and stuff, but traditionally other broadcasters, other mediums, to the degree that you guys used a Twitter or Facebook, but would be producing stuff for Twitter or Facebook and pushing it out, really bringing in other people. I mean, is it a recognition that there's a whole generation of people that don’t consume content the way that NBC has traditionally delivered it? What’s the thinking?

Well, I think the recognition is, to reach an important segment of the audience requires one of, well, requires effectively creating and distributing and putting in front of those people and creating conversation around, amongst those people, content that is relatable and compelling to them. With a sensibility designed to, again, inspire and attract interest. I do believe, and we do believe, that at the end of the day, the way in which the American viewer will watch Michael Phelps and will watch the U.S. women's volleyball team or will watch Usain Bolt when he gets in the starting blocks or as he prepares to, you know, set another record and win a third, or a gold medal in the third consecutive Olympics, will be on NBC, and it will be that incredibly well-produced big-screen coverage with great informative commentary and interesting graphics and great storytelling that they will gather together to watch.

And that's obviously a multi-year, multi-billion dollar bet that NBC's made. You guys recently locked up the Olympics through, I think, 2032?

2032.

Today's virtual reality experience, which I have sampled, I have been blown away by.

The longest deal, I think, ever. What is it about these Olympics that's gonna be new and different from Olympics they've seen in the past? Are there new technologies? Are there new sports? What are the things that you're excited about as someone who's been doing this for a long time?

There's a lot of new technology that the viewer doesn't experience, which simply gives us the ability to distribute more content, higher quality, more searchable. There are, though, those technology additions that enhance the ability of our producers and our commentators to storytell. There's a technology company called Piero that will give us a tool that will enable us to show on replay a three-dimensional, 360 view of a performance, whether it be in gymnastics — there's a technology called stro-motion, this has been used by us and others in chronicling a great sport event and this will break down a performance perhaps and again in gymnastics or another sport where it goes frame by frame by frame. There's probably 10 other sports where the broadcaster host will deploy other kinds of virtual technology, so the quality of the storytelling by using advances in technology gets better every time, and the Olympics has always been an opportunity, because of its profile for companies with new leading-edge technologies, to work with. So we're excited about that. Data of course is deeper, it’s richer, and for the first time on our digital platform we will have access provided to the viewer to dig into deeper data while they're viewing a livestream so they can call up intermediate results — rankings and then some additional layers of data. I think that continues to evolve as we continue to move into the future of this long Olympic contract: More access to data.

You talked a little bit about these technologies that give you a surround presence in traditional TV; we hear a lot about virtual reality, but I think there's two sides to virtual reality in sports. One is — and we'll talk about in a second — actual VR headsets, whether its Gear VR or Oculus or Cardboard. The other is how do you bring that sense of virtual reality to a traditional broadcast? I wrote about one that Intel has, it was used in the recent NBA finals, I think you're talking about a different but similar idea in the sense of, how do you create that 360-degree sense of presence in a traditional broadcast? Is that an area that's really different you think for this Olympics?

It is. And again I — same comment I just made which is: The Olympics always presents the opportunity to experiment with new television media technologies. HD was an experiment back in ‘02. Virtual reality is something we are beginning to work with at NBC Sports, as is many of our peers, and we will work with OBS, again the host broadcaster, who's keenly interested in also advancing the Olympics viewing experience through the adoption of evolving technology. In this case it’s a partnership with them and Samsung, who is an Olympic sponsor and an advertiser on NBC's Olympic coverage, to invest in a daily VR offering of a single event. So we will move around, spend a few days at a particular venue and then move to another. And of course we'll start with the opening ceremony and finish with the closing ceremony. And it’s a — today's virtual reality experience, which I have sampled, have been blown away by — I’m very curious to see how the audience reacts to what’s made available.

So we're talking many minutes per day of one event, in virtual reality?

Right, yeah, an entire event, so two or three hours a day, is about 85 hours roughly of virtual reality coverage that we’ll make available to a Samsung mobile phone owner.

The people of Rio and Brazil have never wavered from their commitment to delivering a successful Olympics.

And what has been the toughest part of the Rio games? Every Olympics comes with its own challenges — I was covering the tech of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and I remember there wasn't enough snow at some of the venues, that's a really tough problem, obviously. We've heard some about some tough challenges for Rio, certainly Zika comes to mind. What have been the real challenges thus far?

Brazil's a wonderful country. The IOC seven years ago decided to move the Olympics for the first time to South America, to a country that at that moment in time was seeing tremendous economic growth. And since about 2013, they've struggled, on the backs of falling oil prices, a corruption scandal at their largest oil and gas company. Now some corruption and scandal around some of their politicians, and so an economic struggle to a country that was emerging has created some challenges. But because the city of Rio had architected a plan when they convinced the IOC to award them the rights, which was built both on the back of private money and a planned design to enhance the quality of life of the citizens of Rio, that that city has remained very much committed to the success of the Olympics and these projects designed to create a successful Olympics but also a better lifestyle in Rio. And I think for that reason the people of Rio and Brazil have never wavered from their commitment to delivering a successful Olympics, and as result of that, we've done incredibly well there. We've had more difficult times preparing in a home city, or a host city, for an Olympics, than we're having in Rio, in fact we're having you know a really solid time moving in our equipment, our people, building out our broadcast space. So fingers crossed cause the world can change on a dime but we believe it’s gonna be a fantastic Olympics, in a fantastic stunning location with people who are gonna welcome the 500,000 visitors and 10,000 athletes with open arms and celebrate alongside them.

If you're very very very unlucky, you contract Zika and it’s, you know, a few bad days.

So from an infrastructure perspective, not the toughest situation you guys have faced? Obviously Zika is not something anyone has dealt with in the past, can you talk a little bit about what it’s meant both from a — NBC convincing its own talent, obviously you have some on-air and off-air people that are pregnant, that aren't gonna be making the trip — talk about what that's meant, how you guys have approached it. Certainly there have been some people calling for the games to be postponed, saying it’s a bad idea to have that many people in a place with a disease we don’t understand that well.

Well, welcome to the world, and the world that I have had the good fortune to travel around and work at now will be my 11th Olympics. It's hard to remember a location or an Olympics where there wasn’t issues that concerned us, that concerned those that might travel and work in the local city. Zika is a scary infectious disease, there are questions that have not been fully answers. We know a few things, we know a lot actually because there's been so much work done over the course of the past five or six months as a large concern, through the CDC, World Health Organization and others, which is yes, if you're pregnant the recommendation is you don’t go because the connection between Zika and birth defects has been established. If you're not, you take precautions and if you're very very very unlucky, you contract Zika and it’s, you know, a few bad days. But the information that's flowing most recently, that some of us knew but were hoping it would take over some of the conversation, is that the mosquito population in Rio during their winter months of July and August is significantly, significantly diminished. And so the actual risk, especially if you're a traveller, in an air conditioned hotel, workspace, or are out on a field of play, of contracting a virus, encountering a mosquito, is very very very slim. I think that that message is circulating and again those who are pregnant — and obviously there are some of our workforce — are not gonna go. Those who are not, and feel comfortable about the circumstances I just described, are gonna go, and that is virtually everybody so far but for a handful.

But you're letting employees make the call?

Absolutely! I mean, anybody who has indicated, and we've made this very clear, anybody who has concerns, we fully understand it, as I said we have an operation in Stamford that's 1,100 people strong, and people have moved to Stamford and a few who are gonna work in Stamford are gonna work in Rio, so I think it — like everything, when the athletes march into the stadium on August 5th, if not a few days before, the stories, what comes out of Rio really becomes about them, their coming, with a few exceptions, and it becomes less about all the concerns that we always experience in the lead-up to an Olympics.

And then recently in terms of doping and the Russian team, the track and field team appears not to be headed to the Olympics, perhaps broader issues with the Russian team — as someone who likes telling good stories, is it always a bummer if a certain country isn't there, if a competitor isn't there? How do you guys think about that?

I think you want the best of the best, and I think the athletes in every one of these sport disciplines wants the best of the best to be competing in the Olympics. It’s early to react completely to what's happening, the IAAF made their ruling, the IOC today has essentially validated that ruling, has acknowledged that if the Russian Olympic committee wants to take that ruling to the court of arbitration in sport that they will certainly recognize any ruling. But the key here is that the integrity of the competition is paramount. This franchise which is a century-plus old rides on the back of that integrity, and we are of course encouraged and expect that the IOC and the international federations that do govern the Olympic competition, the very very serious doping, which of course is unfortunate for the vast majority of those competing who are clean. So it will continue to unfold, we want clean athletes to compete, we want the best in the world to compete fairly and we think these games are gonna be fantastic.

So we've talked about some of the clouds, there's always clouds as you point out, what are you most looking forward to, what do you think — I imagine golf for you, but I mean in general what are some of the things that you're most excited about?

Well, there's some great stories. Michael Phelps’ comeback, he had announced he was gonna retire, has gotten married, has a child on the way, has recommitted himself to swimming, has had some great results, and he's just a tremendous individual, he is a great ambassador for the Olympics and what it stands for and so we look forward to him getting back in an Olympic pool and again competing to beat only his own records: 18 golds and 22 total metals. He has rivals, Ryan Lochte, a great American swimmer, who has gone through some of his own changes since London, is one of the, if not the best American swimmers of all time, has lived a little bit in Michael's shadow, they swim against each other I know in one particular discipline, maybe more. It will be great to see him back in that rivalry, play out. There is a young woman named Katie Ledecky who was very young back in London, won a medal then, has been dominant in distant swimming, fantastic, you know, if she performs at the level that we've been watching her perform at, is gonna be a phenom as well. Gabby Douglas, who was the American female gymnast who won the individual gold in London, she comes back again very competitive, very unusual for an Olympian in gymnastics to repeat, I think it hasn't been done since Nadia Comanici. But there's a new women's gymnast named Simone Biles who did not compete in London, came on the scene and has won the three world championship individual golds in a row since the London games, so she's a fantastic athlete. There's Kerry Walsh, who is a beach volleyballer, three-time gold medal winner, comes back again, family, older, perhaps not quite in the physical shape she was but just older, has a new partner, is competing on Brazil's sand, on Copacabana beach against the Brazilian chief rivals of hers and is going for that fourth consecutive gold medal. And I can’t wait to see hopefully a final at midnight on Copacabana beach, Kerry Walsh going for that fourth gold medal, probably really fighting her way to that finish line. The indoor volleyball team — Brazil's probably second-biggest sport is volleyball after soccer, and they have both super strong, if not world-best teams in women’s. The Americans are pretty good, on both the men’s and women's side. That's a venue that will be wild — home turf again but the American volleyball team should give the Brazilians a run so we're excited about that. And then you have Usain Bolt and you have a distance runner named Galen Rupp who's an American who not only will race in the 10,000 but has qualified in the marathon. I'm not sure anyone has done the 10,000 and a few days later won a marathon in the Olympics. You got the women's soccer team, the women's water polo team — you have these incredible women's teams that did so well in London, really a big part of the story in London was the success of the U.S. women, among others. So again, wildly excited about that! And just really excited about Brazil and Rio. It’s stunning, it’s a very very spirited population who, yes, are going through some hard times, but have shown enormous resilience and we expect we will once again celebrate wildly alongside these athletes as they get their once-every-four-year chance to perform.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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