If NBC had a favorite in the three-horse race between Madrid, Istanbul, and Tokyo to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, the network is not letting on. After Tokyo’s bid prevailed on Saturday, the official response from Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports Group, began with the interchangeable line, “Tokyo is one of the world’s most fascinating cities, and will provide a spectacular setting for the 2020 Olympic Games.” And Jim Bell, the producer who runs the network’s coverage, sent this diplomatic tweet:
Yet the choice of the Japanese capital—on the other side of the world and the clock from NBC’s core viewers—could turn out to be the best of several difficult programming options for the American television network.
At first blush, Tokyo might seem the biggest challenge. The city is 13 hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone in the U.S. Madrid is six hours ahead and Istanbul seven. When NBC paid a reported $4.4 billion for the rights to the four Games from 2014 through 2020, Lazarus promised to “make every event available, on one platform or another, live.”
For the 2012 London Games, which happened five hours ahead of the East Coast, NBC provided live online streaming of every event but maintained its tradition of delaying marquee events for its broadcasts. The strategy caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth on Twitter but also helped the network bring in record-breaking, bigger-than-expected audiences.
NBC spokesman Chris McCloskey declined to comment on how NBC plans to approach Tokyo. There is precedent from 2008 in Beijing, however, where NBC was able to play a 12-hour time difference to its advantage by showing much of Michael Phelps’s historic bid for eight gold medals live in prime time, at least on the East Coast. Phelps’s races were conveniently scheduled for late morning in Beijing to accommodate the U.S. audience. That trick will be slightly more difficult in Tokyo, where East Coast prime time begins at 7 a.m., but at least there is overlap available. In Madrid and Istanbul, however, NBC’s choicest time slot begins in the wee hours of the morning.
The International Olympic Committee and the host nation set the schedule of events, but NBC’s multibillion-dollar investment gives its desires clout. It’s too early to tell who the Michael Phelps of 2020 will be, but he or she should plan to be up early.