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A picture-perfect Olympics

For NBC's Levy, images everything

Those who watched NBC's coverage of the Athens Games -- and that's 200 million viewers, representing 85 percent of US households -- have their personal "Olympic Moments."

For many, the enduring images will be the spectacular photography that NBC used to take us to Greece at the start of each telecast, whether it was on NBC, NBCHD, Bravo, CNBC, MSNBC, USA, or Telemundo.

"A lot of people like to say I've got the greatest job in the world," said Mark Levy, creative director of NBC's Olympic production team, who worked his third Olympiad. "Our mandate is to visit the host country, capture it on film, bring it back, then use those images to send our viewers off to the Games every night."

Whereas Olympic broadcasters look at the clock, the statistics, and the competitive venues, Levy is in charge of the arts-and-crafts shop. He's looking for the visual moments, "the ones that strike an emotional chord," he said, "that `wow' moment of desolation or exultation. That's why people tune into the Games."

And they did tune in.

NBC's nightly prime time average of 24.6 million viewers was up 14 percent from Sydney's 21.5 million. The rating showed an increase of 9 percent, to 15.0, with a 26 share, up from Sydney's 13.8 rating and 24 share.

The Games also gave NBC a predictable nightly victory in prime time, topping the combined household ratings of ABC, CBS, and Fox by 37 percent (15.2-11.0). That didn't always hold true in Boston, however. On Friday night, the Sox-Tigers game on Channel 4 outrated the Olympics, 11.9-9.8. On Saturday, both Patriots-Panthers (12.1) and Sox-Tigers (9.0) outdid Olympics (7.4) head-to-head.

Since May 2003, Levy has made six trips to Greece.

"On the ground, we get all the pictures tourists would love to take but can't," he said. "We can use tripods and jibs [boom arms] to get the right angles." Not to mention getting inside the ropes or on top of nearby buildings.

"All the other NBC people here a year before the Games were doing technical jobs. They kept telling us we had the best hours." Sure. Levy's crew would be off before sunrise. "The best light is two hours after the sun comes up and two hours before sunset," he said. "Those are the golden hours."

It was the aerial shots that grabbed the viewer, the ones taken during those golden hours. And it was great work for a local aviator. "The kind of flying we require is a welcome change for a pilot who normally is doing corporate or tourist flights," said Levy.

And what kind of flying is that?

"We want those shots when you're flying along the ocean surface and an island rises up in front of you, or you come around the edge of a cliff and see a spectacular building."

This fall, Levy will turn his attention to Turin, site of the 2006 Winter Games. "We'll shoot aerials starting this December," said Levy. "`We want to bank a certain amount of footage. There's always the chance they might have a snowless winter and that would leave us with nothing in the can."

Levy won an Emmy (one of his 10) for the opening scenes from Sydney. Two years later, Brian Brown, who wrote the text for the Athens opening that was read so eloquently by James Earl Jones, won for his writing for the Salt Lake City Games. Don't be surprised to see another Emmy heading their way next spring.

As the Athens Games wound down, Levy and his crew of 25 were updating the graphics packages. They were adding winners such as Paul Hamm, Carly Patterson, and Justin Gatlin into NBC's Olympic history, and creating the highlights and credits packages that ran for 12 minutes following Sunday closing ceremonies.

Call it their final Olympic moment.

To be charitable

It's amazing to see the annual transformation of WEEI's cynical on-air personalities into ultimate fund-raisers for the station's Jimmy Fund Radiothon. Last Friday's third event got off to a strong start during morning drive when "Saturday Night Live" personality Seth Meyers called John Dennis and Gerry Callahan and donated the $100,000 he won in a celebrity poker tournament. In afternoon drive, Red Sox partners Mike Gordon and Ben Cammarata volunteered to match up to $110,000 if the "Big Show" crew could raise that between 4-6 p.m. The show's listeners came through, and so did the Sox poohbahs, pushing the grand total past $1 million. As the midnight hour neared, the $1.5 million mark was in sight, then reached. Said WEEI program director Jason Wolfe, "Dale Arnold spoke for all of us when he said, `If everyone who listens to this station could visit the Jimmy Fund clinic just once, we'd raise so much money that Dana-Farber would never have to fund-raise again." Said Arnold: "I only cried four times during the show. It's my favorite day of the year." As of yesterday afternoon the total raised was $1.55 million with, said Wolfe, "a check from George Steinbrenner in the mail." . . . The Patriots are on their "regular-season" schedule this week. They play the Jaguars Thursday (Channel 5, 6:45 p.m.) in their final exhibition game, then open the season next week on a Thursday night edition of "Monday Night Football" against the Colts. The Jaguars game is part of a big week for Channel 5, which has "Golf Fever" specials tonight and Friday on "Chronicle" looking ahead to ABC's coverage of the Deutsche Bank Championship Sunday and Monday. USA has golf coverage Friday (5-7 p.m.) and Saturday (3-6 p.m.) . . . USA is in US Open tennis mode, with daily coverage from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and nightly sessions from 7-11 p.m. CBS (Channel 4) jumps in from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, Sunday, and Monday . . . Pedro Martinez will be an in-studio guest on NESN's postgame show following tonight's Sox-Angels series opener.

Bill Griffith's e-mail address is griffith@globe.com  

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