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NBC Covers Itself Against Olympic Boycott : But Network Officials Optimistic Over Coverage of 1988 Seoul Games

October 14, 1985|JERRY TRECKER | The Hartford Courant

The battle for the Summer Olympics of 1988 is all over, NBC having won the telecasting rights to the Seoul Games, but the speculation about just what the network has and what it will do with the prize is just beginning.

A satellite-delivered national news conference this week left as many questions unresolved as it answered, in part because nobody from International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch to the man on the street in the world's smallest country can tell you exactly what the 1988 Games will produce.

The happiest scenario is one suggested by NBC Sports President Arthur Watson.

"We will do the best job ever in covering the Games, which should be the most attractive since 1972 in West Germany," he said. "We have been involved with the IOC and the Seoul Olympic Committee for more than three years already, have visited the country several times and are amazed at the modern facilities already in place. The SOC has realized that they have to market their product and have cooperated with our needs to arrange a schedule that will be attractive to an American audience."

But Watson is well aware that the best-laid plans of the IOC and the Seoul Olympic Committee can evaporate around one deadly word: boycott.

After all, NBC got stung in 1980 when the United States boycotted the Moscow Games, and the network is well aware that the absence of major nations in 1988 is a possibility. They have taken steps to cover their investment.

"We told the SOC that we would be willing to enter into a risk-sharing plan," Watson said of the controversial deal, which has NBC paying at least $300 million for rights fees but possibly contributing $500 million to the Seoul Committee. "We really won't know the fees until the Games are over, but unlike previous times this wasn't an auction for Olympic rights, but negotiations. They recognized that they had to market a product to an American marketplace."

That marketplace is soft at the moment, with even some popular American events not generating the usual audiences or advertiser support. But Watson does not think that the risk-sharing Olympics plan will lead to U.S. leagues demanding a similar share of potential profits. The Games, NBC feels, are special, subject to different conditions.

As for the possibility of another boycott--remember the African nations in 1976, the American-led walkout in 1980 and the Russian-led boycott in 1984--NBC is protected against that, too.

"Our contract has provision for the non-appearance of certain countries or the postponement of the Games," Watson said. "There will be substantial reductions if certain countries don't appear, but only if the United States stays away would we not be involved in the coverage."

That coverage will consist of approximately 180 hours, about 80% of it live, but that provision has been part of the Korean Olympics problem. Because Seoul is 14 hours ahead of American Eastern time, the schedule has had to be carefully arranged so that some finals will take place in the morning, Korean time, while others are slated to occur in the morning hours on this side of the world.

"We will be 100% live from 7:30 p.m. to midnight and from 12:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m.," Watson said, explaining the basic prime-time coverage window. "Then we will come on the air at 7 a.m. Eastern time each day, which corresponds to their prime time in Korea. We already have a minimum schedule from them and anticipate that there will be still more changes that will be positive for us."

The gamble in that is the early-morning window, which NBC Sports Executive Producer Michael Weisman thinks could prove a bonus for his network.

"The Olympic Games are special, and these Games could be the best since 1972, so we think that viewing habits will be altered during the two weeks of Seoul," Weisman said. "We know that there is already a morning audience for television. We think that people will be waking up early, turning on their television sets during the Olympics and watching our morning coverage."

Overall, NBC is delighted at what has taken place, optimistic at what is to come. Network executives are confident they can turn a profit at the $300 million rights figure. They also sound peacock-proud that they have secured the more varied Summer Games inventory at less than ABC paid ($309 million) for the preceding Calgary Winter Games.

"We are aware of what ABC has accomplished with the Games, both positively and negatively," Weisman said. "In 1988 I don't think we'll be accused of jingoism. We are prepared to equal and surpass their (ABC) coverage. Everything we do there, even when we use the pool production feeds, will have our imprint."

If the Russians, East Germans and Americans all show up, that could add up to something very good for NBC. But simply securing Olympic rights these years hardly ensures a bonanza.

It is no wonder that even apparent good news is tinged with qualifiers in that setting.

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