By Liana B. Baker
(Reuters) - Jim Bell, the executive producer who spearheaded NBC's London Olympics coverage and shouldered most of the criticism directed at the network, is poised for a promotion to a larger role within NBC's news or sports division, according to four sources familiar with the situation.
These sources say Bell is well-regarded by Steve Burke, the Comcast executive who runs NBC Universal for the cable company, and is likely to move up within the next six months.
Ahead of the Olympics there were internal rumors that Bell, who also serves as executive producer of the "Today" show, was in line for a bigger job at NBC News, which is currently headed by Steve Capus. That talk petered out when Capus kept his job after Comcast reorganized the division in July, bringing in Patricia Fili-Krushel to head the news unit's business operations.
One of the sources, who is close to NBC, said Bell is probably in line for a kind of uber-producing sports role like the one Dick Ebersol - NBC's longtime Olympics executive producer and former Sports Chief who served as a mentor to Bell - played for the network.
According to the same person, Comcast is happy with current NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus, who took that post in 2011, so the company may create a new position for Bell, one that would possibly have him oversee the Olympics full-time. NBC has a contract to broadcast the Olympics in the United States for the next four games in Russia, Brazil, South Korea and an unnamed host city in 2020.
London marked the first time Bell was in charge of coverage of the games, filling the shoes of Ebersol, who left NBC in May 2011. Despite flak from social media sites for having delayed airing major events until prime time, NBC's London Olympics coverage drew an average of 31.1 million viewers per night, 12 percent above the Beijing Olympics and a record for any games shown.
The strong ratings performance means Comcast, which initially expected to lose money on the $1.18 billion it paid for the Olympics broadcast rights, now expects to break even and turn a small profit.
"I think Bell's gained amazing (recognition) for what he's done at the games. By far without question this is the best-produced games I've ever seen," said Andre Mika, a marketing executive and former sports producer who directed NBC's HD broadcast of the Athens Olympics in 2004.
Bell, through a representative, declined to be interviewed for this story. NBC also declined to comment.
Bell's immediate task is to stabilize the "Today" show, where he has served as executive producer for the last seven years.
NBC's most profitable show, "Today" generated $612 million in revenue last year, according to Kantar Media. But it has suffered from lower ratings and bad publicity over the ouster of co-host Ann Curry in recent months.
After dominating the morning-show ratings with a 16-year unbeaten streak, "Today" earlier this year lost the top slot to ABC's "Good Morning America," which now runs neck-and-neck with "Today" in the ratings, occasionally taking the weekly crown.
In an interview posted by the Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday, Bell called the Olympics a "cleansing moment" for the show and said it needs to maintain the ratings boost it got from the games.
Trouble is, the show has already lost the post-Olympics glow. "GMA" beat "Today" in total viewers in two out of the first three days after the Olympics ended, according to preliminary Nielsen data distributed by ABC.
Mark Fratrik, vice president of media research firm BIA/Kelsey, said if the "Today" show's ratings keep sagging, "It would be time over the next few months to bring in somebody who has some different ideas."
But Bell, who returned to work on "Today" just two days after the closing ceremonies, "may not want the perception that he abandoned the 'Today' show just when things got tough, especially when things got tough on his watch," said one industry executive.
COOL UNDER PRESSURE
Bell received kudos inside and outside of NBC for openly engaging with the network's social media critics. Tweeting under the logo "Keep Calm and Watch The Olympics," he responded to questions from local affiliates, tweeted ratings performance updates and interacted with frustrated viewers.
Bell, 45, a former defensive lineman on Harvard's football team, joined NBC in 1990 to work on the Barcelona Olympics and has worked on every summer Olympics since. He has also produced broadcasts of football, basketball and baseball games for NBC.
That experience dovetails with NBC's push to expand its sports programming. Comcast clearly views sports as a growth area for NBC -- last year it rebranded the cable channel Versus as the NBC Sports Network. The network's contract with the NFL runs until 2022 and it signed a 10-year deal with the National Hockey League in 2011.
Another source close to Bell said he is not necessarily set on sports and "would be open to anything," even a larger role within the news division.
(Reporting by Liana B. Baker; Editing by Peter Lauria and Prudence Crowther)