'Today' gets early start for Olympics

NEW YORK — The Vancouver Winter Olympics location works out well for NBC, which will be able to show live competition in prime time, a luxury it rarely has when the event takes place overseas.

Not so for the "Today" show, which is transporting itself West for nearly three weeks of broadcasts starting Tuesday. The show will start at 4 a.m. local time each weekday, meaning athletes who want to show off their medals must travel 20 minutes out of the city and take a tram ride to a mountainside set in the middle of the night.

"They'll come," predicted Jim Bell, the show's executive producer.

"Today" looms as an ever-more important promotional showcase for NBC's Winter Olympics coverage, given the network's dwindling audience in prime-time and late-night hours. Not that it needs it, but the Olympics are another showcase for television's most popular morning news show.

Matt Lauer and Natalie Morales are arriving first at the "Today" set on Grouse Mountain; Lauer will carry the Olympic torch through the town of Burnaby, British Columbia, as part of the torch relay. Meredith Vieira, Al Roker and Ann Curry arrive on Feb. 12, the day of opening ceremonies. It's the seventh time that "Today" has gone on location for Olympics coverage.


The schedule was far more comfortable for "Today" and its guests during the Summer Games in Beijing two years ago. There, the live show kicked off at 7 p.m. local time.

Despite being in the middle of the night, Bell said athletes will still wake up early for the chance to be seen on national television. In many cases, they will just stay up late.

"Even though it's 4 a.m., we're excited to have great guests, great crowds, great energy," he said. "It's the Olympics. People will want to come if they have a medal draped around their neck or if they want to hold up a sign saying 'hi' to the people back home. It doesn't matter to us what time it is."

The mountain supposedly provides a great view of the Vancouver area — not that it matters in the middle of the night. The proximity to the winter sports also gives the "Today" personalities a chance to embarrass themselves on ice.

Olympic gold medalists Picabo Street and Kristi Yamaguchi will be "Today" special correspondents during the Olympics, offering commentary and analysis of the action. "Today" special correspondent Jenna Bush Hager will also contribute human interest stories to the mix.

The "Today" cast will host three hours of coverage from Vancouver each morning, while the "Today" fourth hour will remain New York-based with Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, Bell said.

The arrival of George Stephanopoulos as co-host on ABC's "Good Morning America" has done little immediately to change the equation in the morning, where "Today" hasn't lost a week in the ratings for 14 years. Since Stephanopoulos started, "Today" has gained an extra 30,000 viewers compared with "GMA," the Nielsen Co. said.

Since Stephanopoulos' start, "Today" has averaged 5.75 million viewers in the morning, "Good Morning America" has 4.4 million and "The Early Show" on CBS has 2.9 million, Nielsen said.


"It's a very confident show right now," Bell said. "It's a show that's operating on all cylinders. The cast is doing very well. The Olympics just give us an opportunity to show that off to more people."

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