NEW YORK >> The first full day of February’s Sochi Olympics, American television viewers can watch a marquee event live from Russia — in the morning.
In a shift from NBC’s coverage of past games outside North America, nearly every figure skating performance will air on cable during the day, with the key moments shown on tape delay on the main network that night as in previous Olympics.
So if fans want to, they’ll see the women’s gold-medal-winning performance on NBCSN when it happens, instead of waiting until that evening. But they can also watch it again hours later, accompanied by the polished features that are the staple of NBC’s prime-time broadcasts.
For years, the network’s argument for holding back the most high-profile events was that nighttime is when the most people are free to watch TV — and when advertisers and local affiliates benefit most. In one sense, nothing has changed.
“First and foremost, our mission is to protect prime time — that’s still the No. 1 priority,” said Jim Bell, the executive producer for NBC Olympics.
But the other priority is to get more people to pay attention, and for those who already care to stick around longer. Meanwhile, technology kept evolving, and at the 2012 Summer Games in London, NBC started streaming every sport live online.
The network discovered it didn’t hurt prime-time ratings — and may have even helped.
“We think based on London those two goals align perfectly,” Bell said Tuesday. “We took a risk in streaming everything live from London. The biggest takeaway was we amplified and enhanced the audience’s Olympic experience.”
Even with the success of the streaming in 2012, the network still received some criticism for not airing popular events live on TV. Especially on weekends, sports fans are used to watching important games in the early afternoon. And some people are unwilling or unable to log into the online broadcasts, which will again be available for every sport from Sochi.
With the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver, NBC could broadcast figure skating live in prime time. But there is a nine-hour difference between Sochi and the U.S. Eastern time zone.
The NBCSN figure skating coverage starts the morning of Feb. 8 with the new team event and goes through the pairs, ice dance and men’s and women’s short programs and free skates.
Figure skating was the perfect sport for this experiment because it’s popular, lasts nearly the entire Olympics and doesn’t risk weather delays, Bell said. Hard-core fans will get to see every performance of the free skate, not just the last group as would typically air in prime time for a non-North American games.
A separate announcing team will call the live broadcasts, with former Olympians Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir providing commentary. There won’t be much in the way of profiles, which will be saved for the night. Other networks still must wait until after the prime-time broadcasts to air highlights.
The figure skating coverage is an opportunity to attract viewers to the network formerly known as Versus, which became part of NBC Sports with the Comcast merger in January 2011. It has drawn strong ratings for popular events such as soccer at the London Olympics and the NHL playoffs, but its audience drops off sharply at other times.
The channel is in approximately 80 million homes — about 70 percent of the country’s households with televisions.
NBCSN will show 230 total hours of coverage across multiple sports from Sochi, which NBC said is a record for a cable channel. Its broadcasts will include 16 men’s hockey games through the bronze-medal round. There will be three qualifying games featuring the U.S. team, highlighted by its matchup with host Russia on Feb. 15.
Seven women’s hockey games will include the meeting of the powerhouse American and Canadian squads Feb. 12.
NBCSN will also broadcast live gold-medal coverage of events in bobsled, Nordic combined, cross-country skiing, speed skating and ski jumping.
“Lots of people found NBCSN for the first time,” Bell said of the 2012 Games. “Hopefully we’re giving them a reason to stick around.”