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Olympic Viewing: Commercial crossover on NBC

If you occasionally have trouble telling where NBC's Olympic programming ends and the commercials begin, that's no coincidence.

Mark Levy, vice president and creative director for NBC Sports, heads a department responsible for the on-air look of the games, along with profiles of athletes and extended taped pieces like NBC's feature on the 1996 women's gymnastics team. That unit also made a short film about basketball's 1992 Dream Team that was scheduled to air in prime time Friday.

At the same time, Levy works with advertisers to produce some of their campaigns. He helps AT&T make a series of ads that featuring aspiring athletes listening to the NBC broadcasts of key Olympic moments for use as inspiration. He's helped Visa with its Morgan Freeman-narrated ads that salute specific athletic achievements shortly after they take place. Another major advertiser, Procter & Gamble, devised a campaign saluting mothers that NBC supplements by interviewing athletes like Gabby Douglas and Kerri Walsh Jennings about their own moms.

In an era where product placement advertising has become commonplace, Levy said he has no problems mixing the editorial and advertising duties.

"We want to work together to make sure the messaging represents both parties," he said.

Consumers better remember the ads with Olympic themes, said Alan Wurtzel, NBC's chief researcher. The key is to make the ads uplifting. From NBC's standpoint, that fits with the narrative of athletes striving to fulfill their dreams with Olympic medals.

NBC begins meeting with advertisers months before the games to discuss working together, Levy said. If the arrangement works well, the advertiser is tied in the public mind to a popular, positive event and NBC gets campaigns in the weeks leading up to the games that dovetail with its interest in drumming up viewer anticipation.

NBC researchers work for more than a year to get to know athletes, figuring out who will be the key contenders and which have the most interesting stories. Done right, this can make NBC look prescient editorially, as when the network had material ready on Grenada's Kirani James shortly after he became known for his act of sportsmanship in trading name tags with South Africa's Oscar Pistorius. The same researchers enabled Freeman to pre-record a commercial saluting American sprinter Allyson Felix after she won gold in the 200 meters following silvers in the last two Olympics.

"Storytelling has been our philosophy for so many games," Levy said. "We do hear from our viewers that they love to hear the back stories of these kids."

RATINGS: With the games winding down, NBC drew 22.9 million people for its Thursday night coverage, the Nielsen company said. The NBC Sports Network drew 4.35 million people to watch the gold medal women's soccer final between the United States and Japan, the network's largest audience ever.

UPCOMING: The women's basketball gold medal game is scheduled for Saturday, the second-to-last day of competition.