Feb. 4, 2014
Gary Zenkel is president of NBC Olympics and president of operations and strategy for NBC Sports Group. A Michigan Athletics donor, Gary is a University of Michigan alumnus, graduating with a degree in political science in 1983, and was a two-time letterman on the U-M men's golf team (1982-83) under coach Jim Carras. He went on to earn his law degree from Georgetown in 1987 and practiced law for nearly three years before beginning his NBC career in 1990 as director of sports contract negotiation. He has been involved with NBC's negotiation and acquisition of events such as the French Open, Ryder Cup, Major League Baseball and the Olympics.
What is your role with NBC Sports Group and, within that, NBC Olympics?
NBC Olympics is part of the Sports Group, so I am a member technically of the Sports Group and I guess I have sort of a dual role, maybe tri-parts. One is I manage our Olympic project. So we put on that production, we distribute the coverage in the United States, and it's a project that has a lot of moving parts so I sort of manage the moving parts. And I've been working on the Olympics here at NBC since '92. That was the first one I had any involvement in; I was a lawyer back then for NBC. And then I moved into my current role of president of NBC Olympics with the Torino Games in 2006.
I also manage the operations here of NBC Sports Group, which essentially means the engineering and operations side of our Stamford (Conn.) operation which is sort of the hub of NBC Sports and the remote operations of NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network.
And then I'm involved in essentially the business affairs and strategy for the sports group. So I work on rights acquisitions and strategy generally.
Is there anything in particular that NBC is introducing with its Sochi coverage?
The Winter Games has never had the benefit of full live digital coverage; we launched that in London. We streamed live hockey and curling in Vancouver back in 2010. So this is the first time a Winter Games will see the fully streamed Olympics on digital platforms.
We also will create original programming on our digital platforms. We obviously produce a ton of content for television. The streaming content is essentially just competition footage that we make available and we've always cut up highlights, but we're now going to actually host shows during the course of an Olympic day that are available to the digital consumer -- the nbcolympics.com or our app users.
The one that excites me the most is something we're calling the Gold Zone. If you're a football fan, there's a product called the NFL Red Zone which enables somebody to essentially watch a single television screen and be taken from game to game as very exciting moments are on the verge of happening. So if you're sitting down on a Sunday watching football and a particular team is driving, a host would say, "Now we're going to go to the Indianapolis-Kansas City game where Indy has the ball and it's third down on the one yard line."
So the Olympics are very ripe and perfect for that type of experience because there are always so many things going on simultaneously. In the Winter Games it could be up to 10 venues, and in the Summer Games it could be 20-plus venues at once. And so the Gold Zone is going to be hosted from 7 or 8 a.m. to about 2 or 3 p.m. Eastern when Sochi essentially shuts down because of the nine-hour time difference. And we will take people from venue to venue. It might be the last few minutes of a hockey game, over to the last few skiers on the downhill, over to curling, over to a couple of key skaters in speedskating. So it's a lean-back digital experience where one can really get a sense of the most exciting things that are happening at that time.
What's the most satisfying moment during the Olympics production?
(Laughs) I'll tell you exactly. The most satisfying moment for me comes at the very end of the Olympics. Our broadcast will conclude on NBC on Sunday night, Feb. 23, at 11 or so p.m. East Coast time. That's about 8 in the morning Sochi time. We'll all be there because they'll be producing right up to that minute. Generally people will gather in our main control room, which is sort of the command center of the broadcast. And we'll see it as it airs on WNBC in New York. And as that concludes at 11, Bob Costas will give his final words and say goodbye from Sochi. It ends.
Generally the very next second, it's local news -- they'll report on something very local and very non-Olympic because they're reporting on the news and it's the most abrupt thing. But it is also so incredibly satisfying because you've gotten to the end of this unbelievable monster of a project. We've been fortunate that it's been successful for us. People have slept very little, worked incredibly hard, focused incredibly hard, and it's just a very, very satisfying moment to be together with all those people in the trench and kind of take a breath and declare victory and recognize how lucky we are that we just got to do that. And we're so fortunate that we get to do another one when this one ends.
Why did you come to Michigan? Are you from Michigan?
Because who wouldn't go there if they had the opportunity? I'm from New York. And I had a father who graduated in '52 so I had maize and blue all over me. ... I'm sitting in my office with a head cover on a golf club and a bag, and I have my varsity M plaque. It's on my wall, very proudly displayed as it always has been.
Talk about how your experience as a student-athlete at Michigan has impacted you?
I always counsel people -- interns, college students, college grads -- for better or worse that hard work is critical and pays off. And I've always been a hard worker. Michigan was certainly the beginning of that. I worked in high school, but I turned it on at Michigan. One, it's demanding academically, and two, I did have that other activity (golf).
I think developing the ability to work hard and then enjoy life is very satisfying, and honestly I didn't have as much golfing talent as most of my teammates but I worked hard. It taught me you can overcome a lot through hard work, and I started to absorb that concept when I was at Michigan when I was trying to succeed as a student and as a golfer. In both cases I felt like I really just had to just work hard to accomplish those two goals. It's absolutely been part of my approach to my work.
Gary Zenkel is one of 10 University of Michigan graduates who will be contributing to NBC's coverage of the Winter Olympics. Others in the contingent of Wolverines working for NBC in Sochi are:
Andrew Borteck (Senior Counsel, Business & Legal Affairs) -- Will work on Olympics-related transactions, including operational, promotional and advertising.
Mike Eisenstein (Research Assistant, Olympic Programming) -- Will work on programming schedules for all Olympic coverage on the networks of NBCUniversal.
Andrea Joyce (Talent, NBC Sports Group) -- Will serve as the figure skating and short track speed skating reporter.
Keenan Koss (Associate Producer) -- Will be working on alpine skiing features from the Mountain venue.
Dave Picker (Feature Producer) -- Will be working on daily stories, producing pieces on whatever is topical during the Games.
Dan Steir (Senior Vice President, Production & Senior Coordinating Producer, NBC Sports Group)
Nathan Suh (Senior Director, Business Development, NBC Sports Group) -- Will handle Olympics rights analysis and strategic initiatives related to the Olympics relationship.
Kaitlin Urka (Associate Producer) -- Will be working on daily stories on the athlete profiles and features that will air throughout the Games.
Kate Walter (Executive Assistant, NBC Sports & Olympics) -- Will be the Olympic commercial traffic assistant.