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U.S. OLYMPIC FESTIVAL : LOS ANGELES--1991 : Baseball Puts Festival on Back Burner : Television: Priorities change at ESPN, which has angered some by cutting back events and shifting coverage to late night.

July 10, 1991|LARRY STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, ESPN and the U.S. Olympic Committee struck a deal in which the all-sports cable network would televise the next three U.S. Olympic Festivals, beginning in 1985.

It was an arrangement beneficial to both parties. The USOC would be getting the exposure it sought for the event it had been staging in non-Olympic years since 1978, and ESPN would be getting quality summer programming.

ESPN allotted 39 hours of coverage for the 1985 Festival, which was far better than the spotty weekend coverage previously provided by ABC.

Most of the coverage was scheduled for prime time, and the ESPN publicity department put out tons of promotional material.

For ESPN, the Olympic Festival was the next best thing to the Olympics.

For the USOC, sports that got television exposure only once every four years were going to get an annual display on national television. And in prime time, no less.

The first three years of the marriage between ESPN and the USOC went well. So, after the 1988 Seoul Olympics, ESPN and the USOC renewed their vows for three more years.

ESPN, according to sources, paid $2 million to the USOC for the rights to the Olympic Festivals in 1989, '90 and '91, and the relationship remained solid.

But as the third and final of those Olympic Festivals gets under way later this week, the marriage is on the rocks.

The big change came in 1990, when ESPN added baseball to its summer fare, turning the Olympic Festival into a fifth wheel.

With the addition of baseball, the need for summer programming was diminished greatly, and scheduling conflicts put the Festival on the back burner.

The number of hours was cut to 30, and some of the coverage went from prime time to late night. The use of tape delay increased.

The women's basketball gold-medal game, for instance, is scheduled to be shown Tuesday, July 16, at 11 p.m. That's 2 a.m., Eastern time.

The men's title game the next night will be on at 10 p.m., 1 a.m. in the East.

On Friday, July 19, late-night viewers can watch women's gymnastics and track and field at 11 p.m. (2 a.m. in the East).

The boxing finals will be tape delayed two days.

Of course, not all the Festival coverage will be at odd hours. On Saturday, the first day of competition, there's figure skating and boxing on from 1 to 4 p.m. and then again from 9 to 11 p.m. Sunday, there's figure skating and boxing from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. and from 9 to 11 p.m.

And much of the weeknight coverage begins at 9 p.m. in the West.

The opening ceremony Friday will be covered in a two-hour special from 8 to 10 p.m. on Channel 11, with Marc Summes and Susan Anton as the co-hosts. Channel 11 also offers a half-hour preview show at 7:30.

ESPN takes over Saturday and follows the Festival, as best it can, through its conclusion, July 21.

An ESPN spokesman acknowledged that commitments to other programming is one reason for moving much of the coverage to a later start. "But," the spokesman pointed out, "some of the late coverage in the East will be on in prime time in the West, and we are talking about a West Coast event."

The question now is, will ESPN continue to televise the Festival in the future?

"ESPN has completely washed its hands of the Festival," said a source close to the USOC.

Ideally, the USOC would like to sell about 30 hours of weekday coverage to the Prime Network or Turner Broadcasting, then sell an additional 10 hours on weekends to a major network.

That thinking, however, would appear to be unrealistic, as is a three-year, $2-million rights fee.

No matter how well intended an event may be, if it is expensive to cover and gets only a 1 cable rating, it simply is not attractive to television.

But ESPN executives, at least publicly, are not talking about giving up on the Festival.

"We love the Olympic Festival," said Steve Bornstein, ESPN president. "We think it's a good event and would like to continue our association with the USOC.

"We'd like to continue televising the Festival, but on a more affordable basis, at a more reasonable rights fee."

However, industry sources say ESPN, by selling time to Olympic sponsors, probably has not lost money on the Festival.

Loren Matthews, ESPN senior vice president in charge of programming, said: "I don't think you can simply say that since we now have baseball we're no longer interested in the Olympic Festival."

Added Matthews: "To be honest, we haven't given future Olympic Festivals a lot of thought. The next one isn't until 1993, and negotiations on a new deal probably won't take place until after the 1992 Barcelona Games."

Matthews did acknowledge that the presence of baseball has changed things, but, he said, so has the presence of other summer programming, such as water sports, auto racing, horse racing and bowling. "Our overall summer inventory has improved greatly since 1985," he said.

Baseball averages a 1.8 rating in ESPN's 59.1 million homes, other summer programming averages about a 1.5 and the last two Olympic Festivals have averaged a 1.1.

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