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USA TODAY Sports’ Martin Rogers discusses what you should be watching at the Olympics on Tuesday.
USA TODAY Sports

Jim Bell is executive producer of NBC’s Olympics coverage. He decides what you see and when you see it. And some people, inevitably, will not like his choices.

This Olympiad, though, he has an ace up his sleeve: If you don’t like what he’s programming in prime time, he invites you to watch it live on your device or connected TV instead.

“Everything is available on streaming — all caps, underline, italics,” Bell tells USA TODAY Sports. “Every competition can be watched by every person in America in real time as it happens.”

Well, everyone who is what NBC calls “authenticated pay TV subscribers,” such as cable or satellite. Cord-cutters are out of luck.

NBC live-streamed all competition from the Summer Games in London in 2012 and the Winter Games in Sochi in 2014, but this is the first time that it is also live-streaming all nine NBC-Universal Olympic networks, including NBC, and streaming to connected TVs.

When an event is not televised on one of NBC’s Olympic networks, it is streamed online through feeds provided by the host broadcaster, Olympic Broadcasting Services. That means online viewers don’t get the same U.S.-centric experience they’re used to. And Twitter was ablaze with online viewers who wanted an emphasis on Americans as the crowd-pleasing U.S. women’s gymnastics team capped its gold-medal winning performance Tuesday afternoon.

NBC had its best viewership numbers of the Rio Games on Monday. Among the draws was U.S. swimmer Lilly King, who beat Russian Yulia Efimova in the 100-meter breaststroke with echoes of Cold War enmity in the air. Is that sort of thing good for NBC?

“I don’t know,” Bell says by phone from Rio. “We’re going to see how that plays out. I don’t quite see it that way.”

King called Efimova a drug cheat on NBC’s air.

“I think anytime athletes are spirited and speak freely,” Bell says, “it’s a good thing.”

NBC reports that after four days its NBC-only viewership of 27.3 million is 285% better than ABC, CBS and Fox combined and its household rating of 14.8 is 202% better than the other networks combined, the second-largest Summer Games advantage on record, behind London.

Bell calls such stats wonky and interprets them this way: “The Olympics are still crushing everything in sight.”

But Monday’s overnight rating of 19.2 (meaning 19.2% of the households measured watched it) was below the 20.1 rating on the first Monday of the London Games. Bell calls ratings “a measurement tool from the 1970s” and says it is important to look at the bigger picture.

“We’re in a relatively new era of media consumption,” he says. “It’s exciting, it’s daunting to try to manage it. The architecture of this operation is such that we’re building it for the future. And not just how people have been consuming the Olympics for the last 30 years but how we expect they will be consuming it for the next 30 years.”

NBC reported big gains in live streaming with 13.4 million unique visitors on Monday, up 45% from London. Bell says he believes many of the people who stream events live in the afternoon will come back for more on TV in prime time.

“In London, it appeared people who consumed the Olympics and were streaming it actually watched more television,” he says. “That may well be because that marked them as super Olympic fans, to take part of their day to go online and watch the Olympics and then, of course, they are going to go home and maybe watch some more of it.”

Monday night, NBC showed swimming and beach volleyball live but didn’t get to men’s gymnastics until about 11:40 p.m. ET, many hours after it happened.

“We understand there are going to be some things that not everyone is going to agree with,” Bell says. “But we feel for the most part we’ve been making the right calls.”

He says those calls are a matter of the competition schedule — swimming and some beach volleyball can be shown live in prime time — as well as “good guts, good instincts about the programming.”

Programming is not only about when events are telecast, but how. NBC’s approach has long been to tell the story of lesser-known Olympians in quick, soft-focus features so that viewers become emotionally invested in athletes they may not know much about.

John Miller, chief marketing officer of NBC Olympics, angered some critics when he said that more women than men watch the Games and that women are less interested in the result and more interested in the journey, comparing the Olympics to the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one.

“John’s got a considerable amount of research that backs that up,” Bell says. “Again, when you take a position on anything there’s going to be some part of the audience that may not like it or disagree with it. I would say people — whether they are men or women — care about both a lot. That’s why the Olympics are what they are. That’s why the Olympics aren’t something you read about solely in the sports section. This is not Yankees-Red Sox. It’s bigger than that.

“So it’s about the journey. It is about the story. It is about the various emotions that come into play and the way people feel about a certain country and patriotism. So there’s a lot more there than just the result. I think that’s a fact.”

Contributing: A.J. Perez

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