In mid-2005, Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports, had secured the support of the International Olympic Committee for moving the finals of the key television sports of swimming and gymnastics to morning hours in China so they could be shown live in prime time in the United States.
But he had one more person he needed to consult: Michael Phelps.
"Michael was the first outsider I talked to about it," Ebersol said in an interview from Beijing, where he wrapped up NBC's coverage of the Games Sunday. He said he had wanted to make sure that competing in the morning would not harm the performance of the likely American star of the Games.
Ebersol had already developed a close relationship with the swimmer, so much so that Phelps and his mother had attended the funeral of his young son Teddy after a plane crash that also seriously injured Ebersol.
Competing in the morning, Phelps said, was no problem.
"He told me: 'My only real goal is to leave the sport bigger and better than I found it,"' Ebersol said.
Getting American stars like Phelps and the gymnast Shawn Johnson to perform live in prime time was just one of the moves and unexpected breaks, some going back almost a decade, that set up the spectacular success NBC achieved in the Games that ended Sunday night. It was a success represented by record viewer totals of more than 200 million people, a rise in ad sales that guaranteed a profit of more than $100 million, and probably the best word of mouth reports about any Olympics coverage in a generation.
As a result, NBC was able to turn the Beijing Games, with all their potential liabilities - time differences, pollution and potential political upheaval - into a triumph for the network.
"Everything is fraught with risk," Ebersol said, adding that the prospects for Beijing did not look very bright as recently as five months ago. "At that point I was sure we'd lose money."
The economy was bad; advertisers were tightening budgets; a lot of NBC's Olympic ad time was going unsold.
Then as the Games neared, ad sales picked up - and, after the Games started off so well, they exploded. Ebersol said that in the end it may have been NBC's good fortune that the country was going through some tough times.
"The economy was so dark," Ebersol said. "But with $4 a gallon gas, more people were staying home. Many fewer were taking vacations."
That made people both more available and more susceptible to the pull of the Olympics.
"When these Games came along, it was really at a point where the country was just ready for something they could really get crazy about," he said.
Switching swimming and gymnastics to prime time was not the biggest scheduling coup Ebersol helped pull off. Long before that, during the games in Sydney, Ebersol played the central role in a move to alter the weeks when the Beijing Games would be held.
By the summer of 2000, NBC already possessed the rights to the Winter and Summer Games through 2008. The network had made a deal in 1995 to secure them all even before the Games were awarded to any cities. Ebersol effectively sold the idea to the IOC as a better way to go than having the cities make plans without knowing how much they were going to acquire in TV rights.
But the Sydney Games, which took place in late September, were not doing especially well in the ratings. Juan Antonio Samaranch, then the IOC president, left Sydney after the first day because of the death of his wife. When he returned, Ebersol related, he visited the NBC broadcast center and observed that the ratings were not what NBC had hoped. He asked Ebersol if there was anything he could do to help.
"Not for these games," Ebersol said he told him. But he wanted to plant another thought. "I believed China was going to win the bid for 2008," he said. And he had heard that China planned to bid based on dates similar to Sydney.
He asked Samaranch if China could move the dates of its bid four weeks back into August.
"If you're into September, you're going to lose a big percentage of your male viewers," Ebersol said. "There's NFL coverage on Sundays and Mondays, and college football is now on four or five nights a week. All of that goes away if you start in mid-August."
Also, he said, moving the dates back meant bringing in children who would be in school in September and thus not allowed to stay up late to see American stars like Nastia Liukin on the balance beam.
"The Olympics are about the last event that gets the whole family viewing together," Ebersol said.
Samaranch listened to the arguments carefully.
"Forty-eight hours later, when the Chinese made their official bid, the dates were in mid-August," Ebersol said. As it turned out, even those dates did not hold.
Once the tennis federation heard mid-August, it suggested a move back another week - or else Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, the Williams sisters and every other tennis star would skip the Games to play in the U.S. Open.
China made a move again, Ebersol said, setting up the start date of 8/8/08, which received so much attention for the mystical importance that the Chinese attach to the number 8.
"But that's not really why the Olympics started then," Ebersol said.
In both cases when NBC's desires were accommodated, "no money changed hands," Ebersol said.
The $894 million that NBC paid for the American television rights was already in a Chinese bank, Ebersol noted.
But the IOC has an intense interest in assuring that its American TV partner has a success with the Games, he said, because U.S. television money accounts for more cash for the IOC than all the world's other broadcasters combined.
By contrast, he said, China paid $17 million for its television rights, while selling $400 million worth of ads.
The scheduling shift to prime time was very much a personal victory for Ebersol, who first broached it during a conversation with Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, in the summer of 2001.
Ebersol said that Rogge was sympathetic, but said he would do nothing that might harm the performance of the athletes.
"I pointed out that the swimmers are normally up at 5:30 a.m. to train, and in previous Olympics they had swum their heats in the morning," Ebersol said.
Rogge eventually got the support of the swimming and gymnastics federations for the schedule.
Having Phelps on board with swimming for gold at 10 a.m. Beijing time gave Ebersol a formidable line of defense against anyone who suggested that the schedule tailored for U.S. television would prove detrimental to the athletes - and some Australian swimming officials did just that.
"Michael and his coach told them: 'Anyone who is among the best in the world should be able to swim any time of day,"' Ebersol said. He added, "It was really all about Australian television wanting to get swimming into their prime time."
The live events did ignite the U.S. coverage this year, especially thanks to Phelps, who seemed to win a race every night, setting new world records in the process. More evidence, Ebersol said, that swimming in the morning proved no handicap was that 20 world records, as many as in the previous two Olympics combined, were set in the Beijing pool, some by the Australian team.
6 months ago