A cameraman controls a 3D TV camera at the Aquatics Centre during the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
The athletes are all in London. The torch has been lit. The Olympics are underway and Gary Zenkel (’83) is in the thick of it all. Zenkel has been president of NBC Olympics since November 2005, while also serving as executive vice president of strategic partnerships for NBC Sports. Amid a hectic schedule, Zenkel took time to speak with LSA Today about what it’s like behind the scenes covering the 17-day sporting event watched by millions across the world—live, on televisions, and now on tablets and smartphones, too.
When the Olympics are in full swing, what does an average day at work look like for you?
It starts at 11 A.M. and concludes at 5 A.M., when our primetime broadcast ends in London. Along with handling issues that arise throughout the course of the day, I attend a series of daily meetings covering operations, audience ratings, programming plans, and sales. We have 2,700 people working for NBC in London and 700 back in New York. We also have tens of thousands of pieces of equipment and distribute 5,300 hours of media back to the United States. It’s never boring.
You have a diverse background with a bachelor’s degree in political science from LSA and a law degree from Georgetown. How did this lead you to sports broadcasting?
It was a blend of luck and hard work. I was working for a New York law firm, Cahill Gordon and Reindel, which had NBC and NBC Sports as a client. NBC Sports came looking for a lawyer back in 1990, and I raised my hand. Over time, I moved over to the business, operations, and management side.
NBC garnered an unprecedented 215 million viewers during the Beijing Olympics. What strategies did you implement to garner such a large audience?
It was, of course, a great Olympics with great stories in a very interesting country. Michael Phelps won eight gold medals live in primetime, the opening ceremony was astounding, and the U.S. team was very strong. Success started there. But the depth and breadth of our coverage also contributed.
What is new and exciting about NBC’s broadcast of this summer’s Olympics in London?
All events are streamed live. We are offering tablet and smartphone apps that carry our complete coverage, and, for the first time, the Games will be available in 3D. The technology behind the scenes has advanced in ways that I could never describe.
With so much happening on the Web with streaming videos and the use of mobile devices, what does the future of sports broadcasting hold? Do you see an evolution of how you present new media to the public?
It has been evolving as digital media has evolved. What we have discovered is that the more media we make available, and the more accessible we make it, the more people want to gather and watch television. The water cooler has become far more dynamic, and social media will only fuel that phenomenon.
You are working abroad on a project with a vastly international scope. Can you talk about some of the cultural challenges you’ve faced—either in London or China—and how you worked through them?
It takes seven years from the time an Olympics is awarded to a city until the actual games. We have that amount of time, or perhaps slightly less, to build relationships. We succeed to a certain extent on the backs of those relationships and the close partnership we have with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). From Athens to Beijing to London and soon to Sochi and Rio, the cities are never the same, and the cultures can be vastly different. Organizing massive events within the existing infrastructure has been vastly different in each city. In every case, however, the cities are ready when the games begin, and the partnerships we have formed help us to overcome the obstacles we face.
What is the greatest obstacle you face broadcasting the Olympics that might not be an issue with sports coverage in general?
The scope. The Olympics has 26 venues, while every other sporting event has only one or a couple. At times there are 40 competitions happening at once, and every four years it happens in a place that has never done it before or hasn’t for decades. It’s an enormous technical challenge that requires innovation and experimentation with almost no opportunity for testing.
What sport is generating big buzz in London?
Swimming. Michael Phelps swam for a medal on day one. His friend and rival Ryan Lochte will battle him to the finish in several races. And Missy Franklin, a 17-year-old superstar, has lit up the pool for the United States.
Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps compete in the championship final of the men's 200m freestyle during the 2012 U.S. Olympic swimming team trials at CenturyLink Center on June 27 in Omaha, Nebraska.
Al Bello/Getty Images
Do you anticipate any surprises?
Yes…that’s part of the excitement. There are always many.
Being a two-time lettered athlete yourself (Michigan Golf), how do you feel now that the sport has been added to the Olympic roster?
I’m glad it was voted in several years ago by the IOC and will debut in Rio at the 2016 Games. I’m very excited and NBC Universal is very excited since we own the Golf Channel, where the sport will air.
How do you think your degree from Michigan influences what you are doing today?
I’m not sure if it was the degree or the experience. I imagine most of us are shaped to a certain extent by the four years we spend in college. They were a great four years. I met new people, found new interests, and realized some more potential. I learned from both victories and defeats, and of course I have some very fond memories.
Want to know which Wolverines are going for the gold in London this summer? Click here to read more about the athletes from Michigan Today.