Let the Extreme Sell Begin

These aren't the Olympic advertisements of old--featuring skating pixie Dorothy Hamill doing double axels. Instead, NBC (GE ) will be pitching this February's Winter Olympics with hard-charging NASCAR racer Tony Stewart, with a downhill skier featuring hair dyed to resemble leopard's spots, and with a pair of curvaceous bobsledders who brazenly call themselves "the fastest girls on ice."

As the Salt Lake City games approach, NBC is seeking gold by luring the most fickle--and most coveted--viewers: the 18- to 34-year-old men, who have been defecting from sports programming for years. This year the network is shifting its $25 million on-air promotions budget to reach that hipper, younger audience. The stakes are high for NBC, which paid $3.5 billion to air the Olympic Games through 2008. But ratings among younger viewers fell during last year's Sydney Summer Olympics by more than one-third and during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics by 40%. That cost the network millions in discounted "make-good" ads.

This time, NBC figures its audience may be larger in the aftermath of September 11. "People want a pro-American, pro-human event," says John Miller, co-president of the NBC Agency, its in-house ad agency. "And games in America go better" than those in far-off places such as Australia, where time differences preclude airing real-time events. NBC will also step up red-white-and-blue-laden spots after the November sweeps, says Vince Manze, Miller's co-president. And the promos will have an extreme-sports quality about them, such as one in which U.S. women's hockey team captain Cammi Granato is shown mowing down a young figure skater. "Winter Olympics is all about speed," says Randy Falco, COO of NBC Olympics. "We're trying to capture some of that speed and excitement."

NBC, which launched the Olympic campaign during last spring's National Basketball Assn. playoffs, intends to plaster ads during a Saturday teen comedy block that it says outdraws MTV. It will also place ads on its youth-oriented gross-out show Fear Factor. And NBC is freeing up spots on its pricey Thursday-night lineup of shows such as Friends and Will & Grace. It will advertise in movie theaters as well as on sister cable channels CNBC and MSNBC, which will also air some Olympic events. Even so, the blitz is "a long shot to bring the younger viewers in" because they have so many entertainment options, says Roy Rothstein, director of national broadcast research at media-buying firm Zenith Media Services Inc. Zenith hasn't decided whether to buy Olympics spots for clients such as Verizon Communications (VZ ) and Toyota Motor Corp. (TM ). And it may take more than the "fastest girls on ice" to draw in younger male viewers.

By Ronald Grover in Los Angeles

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