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On TV, Olympic viewers will see mix of old and new

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It’s more than the unusual Black Sea locale that, for American TV viewers at least, will lend an exotic flavor to the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Ninety years after 304 mostly aristocratic, mostly male amateurs gathered for the first Winter Games in Chamonix, France, the schedule in Sochi, Russia, will showcase several new daredevil sports, more team events, and a superstar roster dominated by females.

With diminished women’s figure-skating hopes and a men’s hockey team in the background of the gold-medal conversation, the United States will rely on much-improved bobsled and Alpine skiing teams as it seeks to defend its medals title from Vancouver four years ago.

“I don’t think the U.S. ski team, men and women, has ever gone into an Olympics with more star power,” said Steve Porino, an ex-American ski-team member who is an NBC analyst in Sochi. “These are once-an-era athletes.”

Among the male skiers, Bode Miller, making his record fifth Olympic appearance, and Ted Ligety, who won three golds at the most recent World Championships, should contend whenever they’re on the slopes.

Alpine medal favorites Julia Mancuso and Mikaela Shiffrin, the 18-year-old phenom who is the reigning world slalom champion, should make up for the absence of injured Lindsey Vonn.

In the Olympic movement’s nod to the popularity of extreme sports, debut events in this Olympics include halfpipe and slopestyle skiing, slopestyle snowboard, and snowboard parallel slalom.

In addition, women ski jumpers will compete for the first time, and there will be new team events — a mixed biathlon relay, a luge relay and a team figure-skating competition.

Youthful, edgy and capable of building national interest, these additions are meant to attract a younger TV audience, a demographic that often views Olympic staples like figure skating as too formal and staid.

Now, familiar snowboarders like Louis Vito, Kelly Clark and Shaun White are back on the free-spirited U.S. team. White, the sport’s superstar, has been training on a private halfpipe in Australia.

“In our sports,” Clark said, “there’s more room for self-expression and creativity.”

Like it or not, TV viewers will have to get used to these rookie snow sports. NBC, which along with its affiliated platforms will broadcast 1,539 hours of Olympic coverage, will focus heavily on them.

That’s because Americans are expected to do well, a development that could counter anticipated declines in interest and medals in men’s and women’s figure skating, normally the Games’ biggest TV ratings producers.

In Vancouver, America’s female skaters failed to medal for the first time since 1964. None has finished in the top three at a World Championship since 2006.

“The U.S. ladies need a medalist,” said Ashley Wagner, who is expected to be the nation’s best in Sochi, although she stumbled at last month’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships and barely made the team. “We need that for interest in the sport.”

NBC hopes that edgier competitions, with their high-flying acrobatics and falls, will make up for that shortcoming.

“All these new events come at a time when the audience’s appetite and ability to interact with all sports is growing,” said Jim Bell, NBC Olympics executive producer.

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