With model cows twirling on ice, fiery skaters and women in lumpy dresses meant to signify the Alps, the Winter Olympics opening ceremony pulled back the curtain Friday on 17 days of NBC coverage.
American TV viewers will be force-fed an exotic world of halfpipes and skeletons, bobsledders and snowboarders, through a staggering 418 hours on NBC and its related cable networks.
"The games begin at an interesting, some say dicey, time in our world," NBC News anchor Brian Williams said at the ceremony's outset.
Williams and Bob Costas were the network's hosts for the ceremony and parade of nations. Katie Couric has helped handle those duties for the last few Olympics but, with her NBC contract nearing an end and CBS courting her, she was benched this time in favor of Williams.
Perhaps no entertainment event truly approaches an Olympics opening or closing ceremony for general loopiness, and this was no exception. There were girls raising flags mounted on the backpacks of men, an unfortunate fellow being forced to continually pound a fire-breathing platform with a mallet and those model cows being led around the ice.
Costas tried gamely, at first, to try to decipher it all: "The universal symbol of passion, the beating heart," he said.
But eventually he seemed to simply give up and the narrators allowed long stretches of silence.
The opening ceremony will be hard-pressed to reach the U.S. ratings heights of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002. The first-night pageantry four years ago had an audience of 45.6 million people, according to Nielsen Media Research.
NBC's prime-time coverage for all of the Salt Lake City games averaged 32 million viewers.
NBC executives already are dampening ratings expectations this time. Generally, Olympics on American soil do better than overseas games, and Salt Lake City occurred during a time of lingering patriotism following the 2001 terrorist attacks, said Randy Falco, NBC Universal TV Group president.
The television world has also become increasingly fragmented, to the point where one-third of the nation's homes have access to at least 160 channels.
"It's really impossible to compare this to Salt Lake City," Falco said.
NBC said it has promised its advertisers an average Olympics rating of between 12 and 14 (Salt Lake City's overall rating was 19.2). That translates, roughly, to between 24 million and 25 million viewers per night anything less than that means NBC has to make it up to its advertisers with free commercials.
The network still estimates it will come very close to its Salt Lake City tally of 187 million different people who watched at least six minutes of the Olympics on either NBC or its cable networks. Between broadcast and cable, the coverage will average 24.6 hours a day.
With fewer sports than the summer games, NBC's challenge will be to fill that time with compelling programming.
Already, some stretch marks are showing. With the ceremony not long enough for NBC's four hours of first-night coverage, NBC filled its first hour with boilerplate: interviews with Michelle Kwan and Bode Miller, and film of training runs by U.S. downhill skiers.
Some gorgeous pictures of the Alps made for a nice travelogue, though.