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Borrowing an idea from football for Olympics

By: Associated Press
February 13, 2014 Updated: February 13, 2014 at 3:26 pm

STAMFORD, Conn. — NBC has borrowed an idea — and a voice — from football's popular "Red Zone" broadcasts for a digital channel that tries to reflect the breadth and immediacy of the busy days at the Winter Olympics.

The "Gold Zone" is one of NBC's most popular online offerings, and perhaps a model for how future Olympics will be presented on television.

On Thursday, the "Gold Zone" dipped into coverage of the first U.S. men's hockey game, a 7-1 rout of Slovakia. Shrinking pictures so two appeared side-by-side on the screen, host Andrew Siciliano simultaneously displayed Russia's game with Slovenia, and asked viewers to vote via Twitter which game they most wanted to see.

Within an hour, "Gold Zone" also darted around to live speed skating, curling and biathlon.

At one point, the screen was divided into quarters with live action in each box.

NBC tried something similar during the London Olympics in 2012 as an alternative to streams of individual sports, but without any narration, said Rick Cordella, senior vice president and general manager of NBC Sports Digital. A few months ago, the company decided to fully embrace its inspiration by contacting Siciliano.

Siciliano was hosting a sports talk radio and a cable TV program on fantasy football nine years ago when Fox and DirecTV approached him with the "Red Zone" idea. "My initial reaction was, 'I'm going to miss sitting on my couch with my friends'" on NFL Sundays, he said.

The football show follows several games simultaneously, hopping from one to another at key moments, often when one team is within an opponent's "red zone" — 20 yards or less from a touchdown. It appeals to fans, along with bettors and fantasy football players, who don't want to watch entire games, but do want to see every big play.

The idea clicked, so much so that the NFL Network began producing its own version for distribution to cable companies. Siciliano doesn't miss his friends on the couch at home.

"I get to stand in front of a wall of televisions and be America's remote control," he said.

For "Gold Zone," Siciliano works in a studio at the NBC Sports Group's headquarters in Connecticut. He's onscreen for a 7 to 11 a.m. ET time shift, which is late afternoon and early evening Sochi time. He's relieved by colleague Ryan Burr, who works his own four-hour shift starting at 11.

With the NFL, Siciliano figures he knows about every player in the league. But for the Olympics, he's had a crash course on the more than 2,000 athletes in competition, including how to pronounce difficult names.

"Gold Zone" will take feeds of individual sport announcers, both from NBC and the IOC, and Siciliano ties it all together as a narrator to keep viewers abreast of developing stories.

"People want to see the celebrations. They want to see the emotions," he said. "The emotions are so raw because these athletes have been training for this for all of their lives."

The show is a clearinghouse for Olympic fans who don't want to curate their own viewing experiences. Traffic to "Gold Zone" has exceeded all expectations, Cordella said. The stream has had 279,000 unique visitors throughout the Olympics, with more than 10 million minutes watched, NBC said.

"I love it," Siciliano said, "because I truly think it's the future. With instant gratification, it's getting to the point where the viewer assumes that everything will be like the 'Red Zone.' They won't miss anything."

It's also no stretch to see the same concept be applied to television during future Olympics, perhaps on the NBC Sports Network.

"That will be a decision for others to make," Cordella said.

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