NBC will stream the 2018 Winter Olympics opening ceremony for the first time

Katie Couric will return to NBC to co-host alongside Mike Tirico

NEW YORK – Once again, Olympics fans in the United States won’t have the opportunity to watch the opening ceremony live on NBC. But for the first time, cable subscribers will be able to stream it live on the NBC Sports app and on NBCOlympics.com.

And NBC unveiled a major surprise on Wednesday: Katie Couric, the former Today show host, will return to NBC to cohost the opening ceremony alongside NBC Sports’ Mike Tirico, who will cohost the network’s primetime Olympic coverage for the first time, replacing Bob Costas.

“Surprise! I’m really excited and thrilled to be included in this and to work with Mike. We go way back, since 45 minutes ago.” Couric joked as she was introduced at an Olympics press event at the network’s Rockefeller Center headquarters in New York City. Pyeongchang will mark Couric’s fourth time hosting an opening ceremony, making her a natural paring for Tirico, who will be cohosting the event for the first time.

South Korea is 14 hours ahead of the East Coast. As a result, the 2018 Winter Olympics opening ceremony, which will take place at 8 p.m. South Korean time Feb. 9 at Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium in Pyeongchang, South Korea, would air live at 6 a.m. Philadelphia time. Instead, NBC will broadcast its traditional curated version of the opening ceremony on delay at 8 p.m. Philadelphia time on Feb. 9.

But the time difference works in NBC’s favor during the games themselves, allowing the network to air its prime-time coverage live across the country for the first time. Figure skating will air live in primetime on 12 of the 18 nights, while skiing will be shown live 11 nights.

“I think the biggest thing people don’t get is that we’re going to be live for three hours, then we’ll go away for go to local news, and then we’re coming back live,” Tirico said. “There are going to be a couple of gold medal races in slalom skiing that will happen in late night live.”

NBC hasn’t yet decided whether it will also livestream the closing ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 25, but Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Broadcasting and Sports, said “in all likelihood, we will.”

“It makes sense to stream [the opening ceremony] and we think consumer behavior has changed enough that it’s time for us to change with it,” Lazarus said.

What might seem sensible due to the difference in time has actually been somewhat controversial for NBC, as Olympics fans have clamored for a way to watch the opening ceremony (and to a lesser degree, the closing ceremony) live for years.

NBC hasn’t aired an opening ceremony live since the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and hasn’t aired a summer opening ceremony live since the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. In 2006, NBC declined to air the opening ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro’s Olympics live despite the fact the city is just one hour ahead of the East Coast, which led to numerous complaints about the number of commercials jammed into the broadcast.

NBC has also received a healthy share of criticism from fans over its unwillingness to stream the opening ceremony live online, largely out of fear of cannibalizing its primetime audience (and advertising revenue). Lazarus alluded to the criticism during his opening remarks at the press event.

“It’s a response to some of the things you’ve written about us in the past,” Lazarus joked to reporters.

NBC has never really shied away from the need to monetize the Olympics (the games do cost the network and parent company Comcast billions of dollars), but editorially the response has always been that it prefers a curated version of the ceremony to place the events in the proper context. NBC Olympics chief marketing officer John Miller didn’t help matters in 2016 when he seemed to blame female viewers for the strategy.

“The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans,” Miller told the Inquirer and Daily News ahead of the Rio Olympics. “More women watch the games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one.”

That led to a stinging rebuke by the Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins, who called NBC’s approach to its Olympics coverage as a “paperback romance novel approach” that leans less on sports and more on soft-focus stories.

Staff writer Jonathan Tannenwald contributed to this report.