"We were over there most recently last month, and the progress is demonstrable," says Neal, exec VP-NBC Olympics, a separate division of NBC Sports. "The national bird is the construction crane. Everywhere you look on the horizon, there's a crane. I have no doubt everything will turn out fine."
General Electric Co., NBC's parent, certainly hopes he's right. The company paid just over $1 billion for the U.S. rights to televise the 2004 Athens Games and the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. Yet a recent report stated that 27 of the 29 Olympic venues under construction in Athens were either incomplete or behind schedule.
Security has also been an issue, though ATHOC (Athens Organizing Committee) has committed $600 million to protect the Games, double what was spent in 2002 in Salt Lake City. But some wonder if a full complement of venues will be ready to protect.
ATHOC President Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki said last month: "I concentrate on the work going on and not the comments. ... The question is not that we are ready a year before, or three months before. We have to be ready on the opening day."
Many observers, NBC included, are eager to give the local organizing committee the benefit of the doubt because of two factors rarely encountered in other Olympic host cities. One, Athens' existing infrastructure borders on the abysmal. In addition to building venues for competition, the Greek government is also rebuilding roads and its neglected mass-transit system. Second, construction literally comes to a stop when ancient relics are unearthed and carefully removed.
But the slow progress doesn't appear to be affecting ad sales. NBC reports that 80% of the available slots over the 16 days have been sold.
"Look, none of that affects us or, I presume, anybody else," says one media buyer. "You heard the same thing about Barcelona [in 1992] and other cities who were supposedly behind. It'll get done and by the time Aug. 13  rolls around, and the torch is lit, nobody is going to be thinking about how long it took to build a natatorium."
Perhaps Neal's confidence stems from the fact that two key venues in Athens related to TV coverage-the International Broadcast Center and the Main Press Center-are complete. Moreover, NBC has JAWS-its Just Add Water Studio, the network's main traveling component.
"When we made our first Olympic deal and started looking at the logistics of an Olympics in Sydney [in 2000], the technical brain trust here realized that building basic components that could be transported would be a smart thing," Neal says. "So we have JAWS, and the portable studio has traveled from Sydney to Salt Lake City and now to Athens."
Three years ago, it was a wonder there would be an Athens at all. The International Olympic Committee gave ATHOC a stern warning because of its construction delays, poor planning and security lapses. The appointment of Ms. Angelopoulos-Daskalaki as the head of ATHOC seems to have spurred the turnaround.
"We issued a strong warning, and I must say that both the government and the organizing committee addressed that very well," IOC President Jacques Rogge told NBC's "Today" show last month. "They have accelerated. We recently had extensive testing by experts, and they are adamant that there is enough time to finish in due time."
Construction and security concerns were not the reasons NBC invited its key advertisers to Bermuda instead of Athens, VP-Communications Kevin Sullivan says. The complimentary trips are standard procedure by a network and, in fact, the number of trips an advertiser receives is often negotiated into its ad buys. The advertisers, in turn, often pass the trips along to customers and employees.