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‘Mormon Games’? NBC isn’t worried

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While Salt Lake organizers and various members of the media have worried about the 2002 Winter Olympics turning into the "Mormon Games," NBC has no such worries.

"It's not nearly the day-to-day issue with either one of us that it seems to be in various other parts of the media," said NBC Olympics Executive Vice President David Neal, speaking alongside NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol. "We liken it to if we were doing the Olympics in Rome, would the Vatican occasionally show up as a visual? Of course it would."

"We're television producers, but we've thought from Day 1 that it would be great to have the Tabernacle Choir involved in these Games," Ebersol said. "And I'm not hiding it."

He said that some of the early Salt Lake organizers were "a little bit uncomfortable" with that. "We kept saying, 'Yeah.' First of all, it's a terrific singing group, and it's unique to your part of the world."

The NBC executive went out of his way to praise both the people of Utah and the leaders of the LDS Church.

"I've always been taken by the friendliness and the openness of the people, particularly in January and February of 1999 as the people in the community ? I'm talking about the average Joes, the people I dealt with who were on the committee ? who were sort of taken aback by the scandal at that time," Ebersol said. "And seeing the pain in their faces as to how they felt that they and Utah would be judged. And I always looked at that as a wondrous sight. And I thought of the some of the more cynical areas in this country where they wouldn't have shown their pain the way that they did."

He said that, from when he was 2 or 3 until he went off to college, his parents regularly invited LDS missionaries to dine in their home and that, as a result, "I think I had a pretty good level of knowledge about the church and everything else ? much more so than the average American. But what I didn't really have until I started coming here on a regular basis was how open I find the people here."

And, ever the iconoclast, Ebersol even opined that "I personally felt for a long, long, time . . , I think a lot of the things that happened (with the Salt Lake bid scandal) that confused issues here might have been a lot better off if the church had been more involved" in the bid process.

"I've been really impressed by a lot of the elders of the church," he said, adding that he met with "many" LDS leaders who offered their help. "I'm talking about the quality of the men that we met, and I just think if some of them had been involved then, some of this stuff wouldn't have happened," Ebersol said.

NBC is planning a piece on the LDS Church that will air toward the end of the Games that will include an interview Tom Brokaw did with President Gordon B. Hinckley, who will address "outsiders' perceptions or myths about Mormonism."

Ebersol said even that spot won't dwell on the issue. "We're talking five, six minutes and we're talking about sometime the last two or three nights of the Olympics," he said. "But in fairness to everybody, I want to put that at the end and put that against the reality of what happened here as opposed to all the thoughts on, well, this will happen and that will happen. We're here primarily to cover sport."

Which is a point both NBC executives made repeatedly.

"We're here to do the Olympics ? we're not here to do a travelogue," Neal said.

In fact, NBC research has shown that American viewers don't want that for Games that take place in the United States. "They want a couple of references, they want to see a few things, but they don't really want to get into it," Ebersol said. "We weren't doing ? what is Atlanta really like? (during the 1996 Summer Games)."

Viewers will see "a ton of beauty shots" and "some little historical pieces." Both "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and NBC's late-night Olympics show will have a large Utah presence, with taped and live segments and musical performances from the Medals Plaza.

As it did when covering two NBA Finals here in the '90s, NBC will feature LDS structures prominently in those beauty shots. "You'll see the skyline of the city, and the temple's a pronounced part of it," Ebersol said. "But more than likely, the larger shot will be of all those incredible photos on the sides of buildings lit up at night."

But, by and large, NBC isn't worried about informing its viewers of Utah's past and present.

"It's part of our coverage but not the focus of our coverage," Ebersol said.

On other topics:

NBC Network President Randy Falco said NBC has sold about 98 percent of its ad time during the Games and is "very close" to its goal of $720 million in ad revenue. He projected the network would turn a profit of between $60 million and $75 million, making the 2002 Games more lucrative for the network than either the 2000 Sydney Games or the 1996 Atlanta Games, both of which brought in about $60 million in profits.

Ebersol promised jingo-free coverage that wouldn't overplay American patriotism. "We do not allow rooting . . . whether it's in commentary or whether it's in promotion," he said.

Neal promised a variety of technological special treats, from virtual graphics to special equipment that reports speeds during bobsled and luge ? but added that it would only be used when it can enhance the network's coverage.

Except on the West Coast, 70 percent to 75 percent of the coverage on NBC, CNBC and MSNBC will be live. And they're not apologizing for tape-delaying big events that take place in the afternoon hours until prime time when more viewers are in front of their TVs.

"We are in the business of servicing the largest possible audience," Ebersol said.

Ebersol said that security ? which he called "tight but polite" to this point ? will be one of the big stories of the Games. But he admitted it was a bit of a shock to see just how tight security is.

"I find it kind of strange to go off to the men's room and find myself bookended on either side by Army men with M-16 rifles hanging by their side," he said.

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com