By Gary Anderson

March 19 - Record audience numbers in the United States tuned in for NBC's coverage of the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Games ©Getty Images Gary Zenkel, head of NBC Olympics, has hailed the success of the broadcaster's coverage of the Sochi 2014 Winter Paralympics and claimed it plans to build on the success by increasing coverage for Rio 2016. 

The American broadcaster was criticised for its coverage of the London 2012 Paralympics, when it dedicated just six hours of airtime to the whole event and did not show any live action.

But, despite the lack of live coverage, Zenkel told Hollywood Reporter that the reaction from the American public to the Games in London demonstrated there was an appetite for the Paralympics in the US.

This was reflected in a deal struck between the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), NBC and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) last September, which saw over 50 hours of action broadcast from Sochi and plans to show just under 70 hours from Rio 2016, Zenkel claimed.

"Coming out of London was a watershed moment for the Paralympics," he said.

"There was a huge audience awareness and interest, especially in the US.

"We got together with the US Olympic Committee and said we both need to find a way to broaden the coverage of this event.

"What it needed was resources, so we went to many of the US Olympic Committee sponsors and found a very receptive audience.

"We got six sponsors [BMW, BP, Citi, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Procter & Gamble and The Hartford] who were willing and enthusiastic of our coverage, and that gave us the opportunity to broaden it to these 50-plus hours that are now fully streamed on the USOC website."

While conceding there was not much to compare with from previous Games, Zenkel revealed audience figures were 60 per cent higher on NBC's cable network and 40 per cent higher on NBC for Sochi 2014 adding that "we have found a diamond in the rough with this amazing event that is full of incredible human interest stories to tell."

Heath Calhoun was one of the US stars in Sochi winning silver in the super combined sitting event ©Getty Images Heath Calhoun was one of the US stars in Sochi winning silver in the super combined sitting event ©Getty Images

A big part of that interest is down to the fact that a number of US athletes competing in Sochi were war veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Zenkel, who believes the US public tends to get behind and show greater support for athletes who have served their country as part of the military.

There were 16 war veterans and two active-duty servicemen on the US team at the Sochi 2014 Paralympics, including Rico Roman, Josh Sweeney, Jen Lee and Paul Schaus, who were part of the victorious US ice sledge hockey team who's gold medal match against hosts Russia was broadcast live on NBC.

Alpine skier Heath Calhoun was also a former military veteran to medal in Sochi, taking silver in the men's super combined sitting event, after losing both of his legs in Iraq.

Zenkel is confident a corner has been turned in terms of interest in Paralympic sport in the US and believes that this will be reflected in even greater coverage of the Games going forward.

"My sense is that coming out of these Paralympics there will be greater awareness, and we'll go back into the marketplace," he said.

"Hopefully we will see even greater support and have higher audience numbers to demonstrate the interest.

"We are just scratching the surface and will continue to grow."

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