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NBC weighs value of broadcasting future Olympics

After posting a $220-million loss on its 2010 Olympic coverage, new majority owner Comcast could opt out.

February 17, 2011|By Meg James, Los Angeles Times

Comcast Corp., which last month acquired majority ownership of NBC Universal, may not be feeling the love for the Olympics.

Long one of NBC's most prestigious properties, the Olympic Games have given the broadcasting company huge ratings, leverage when negotiating new deals with cable operators and sweeteners to attract marquee advertisers willing to pay hefty premiums.

NBC's previous parent company, General Electric Co., also used sponsorship of the Games as a calling card, helping to open doors of commerce in China and beyond. But unlike GE, Comcast isn't concerned with sales of turbines, lights and security systems.

NBC Universal posted a staggering $220-million loss on its coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, a financial gaffe that Comcast hopes not to repeat.

"We are here to make money," NBC Universal Chief Executive Steve Burke said Wednesday when asked about Comcast's interest in the Olympics during a conference call with analysts. "We're here to be disciplined. Our job is to increase value over the long term."

One of Comcast's — and Burke's — first major decisions will be how aggressively to bid for upcoming rounds of the Olympics. NBC already has committed to pay $1.2 billion for the broadcast rights to next year's Games in London, but rights for the Games after that are up for grabs.

Upcoming are the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. NBC executives have said they plan to bid on the packages. Offers are also expected from Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN, News Corp.'s Fox networks and a combination of CBS and Time Warner's Turner Sports.

Making money on the Olympics would bring the NBC broadcast network closer to the break-even point. But it's not the only sports programming that loses money for the network — its "Sunday Night Football" franchise loses about $100 million a year.

Burke cautioned Wall Street that a turnaround of the ailing NBC prime-time lineup could take as long as five years. "I don't think that we are going to see anything for a while," he said.

Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts said that with the NBC Universal merger completed, "Now it's really all about execution."

In addition to the network, the merged company includes film studio Universal Pictures, Universal theme parks, Spanish-language television network Telemundo, and NBC's lucrative portfolio of cable TV channels, including USA Network, Syfy, Bravo, MSNBC and CNBC. Comcast said it contributed $6.2 billion in cash and its sports and entertainment channels for a 51% stake in NBC Universal. GE retained 49%.

Comcast, which is the nation's largest cable television operator, beat analysts' estimates for its fourth-quarter earnings. Video subscriber losses were not as bad as feared and the company added 292,000 new high-speed Internet subscribers. Sales of cable television commercials were better than expected. Comcast said it took in $180 million in political campaign money in 2010.

For the quarter that ended Dec. 31, before Comcast took control of NBC Universal, the Philadelphia-based company's net income increased 7% to $1.02 billion, or 36 cents a share, up from $955 million, or 33 cents, in the fourth quarter of 2009. Revenue was up 7.2% to $9.7 billion.

Comcast also raised it annual dividend 19%. The earnings announcement came before the trading day began on Wall Street. Comcast shares rose 97 cents, or 4%, to $25.13.

meg.james@latimes.com

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