Olympic TV-rights bidders find a sexy partnership can help get out of the starting blocks

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By David Bauder
AP Television Writer

CBS Corp. and Time Warner Inc. executives have discussed joining forces to bid on rights to televise the Olympics in 2014 and 2016, turning that competition into an even greater clash of media titans.

TV empires headed by incumbent NBC, Fox and ABC-ESPN have all said they expect to bid on the U.S. rights to the games. Because of the economy, the International Olympics Committee has said it is prepared to postpone its bid selection until after the host city is named next October for the 2016 Summer Games.

If CBS works with Time Warner, competition could be televised on CBS plus popular cable networks TBS and TNT. Time Warner also owns CNN, CNN Headline News, Turner Movie Classics and the Cartoon Network.

NBC Universal has set the template during the past few games by spreading sports across its properties, including CNBC, MSNBC, USA, Telemundo and a Web site devoted to the action. NBC has telecast every Summer Olympics since 1988, and would like to keep up its tradition.

The Beijing Olympics was a ratings success for NBC and its cable networks last summer, and also established that the availability of much of the event online wouldn’t necessarily reduce television viewership.

The CBS-Turner talks, confirmed by both sides this week to The Associated Press, were only preliminary. No decision has been made about going forward with a bid, said Shirley Powell, a Turner Networks spokeswoman.


“Certainly, the Olympics are a very strong sports property and something that we would have potential interest if it made economic sense for our company,” she said.

Sean McManus, CBS Sports president, said that while the Olympics were undeniably attractive, there’s a danger in thinking the success of Beijing — keyed by Michael Phelps’ eight gold medals and the attractive setting — would necessarily carry over.

The IOC is selling TV rights to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and the 2016 Summer Olympics as a package. IOC members will vote next fall among four candidates for the 2016 host city: Chicago, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo.

The IOC had originally planned to open bidding before the 2016 host city was decided. Bids for the U.S. rights would likely be much higher if Chicago is the host city, and many IOC-watchers believe Chicago’s chances were greatly enhanced by Barack Obama’s election as U.S. president.

U.S. television viewers tend to be more interested in Olympics held on U.S. soil and, with Chicago games, the winning rights-holder would be able to show many events live in prime-time.

That’s not the case with London, host of the 2012 games to be televised on NBC, or with Madrid and Tokyo. Sochi has an inconvenient nine-hour time difference with the eastern U.S.

In the previous rights negotiations in June 2003, NBC beat Fox and ESPN/ABC with a $2.2 billion bid.

Besides being a success on the different media platforms, the Beijing games were important to NBC parent General Electric Co. in bringing in new business, said sports business expert Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports president who consulted with the IOC during the last right negotiations. Potential bidders this time all are owned by giant companies with worldwide interests: Fox’s News Corp., Time Warner and the Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC and ESPN.

The idea of associating the Disney brand and its image of following your dreams with the Olympics’ five rings “is very exciting for us and, I believe, would be for the IOC,” said Rob Simmelkjaer, vice president of corporate programs at ESPN.

NBC executives would not discuss negotiations, but they expect to bid. The network’s sports chairman, Dick Ebersol, has worked on Olympics since the 1960s. NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker got his start at the network as an Olympics researcher.

“The incumbent always has a significant advantage when you’re dealing with an event of this magnitude,” Pilson said. “Anyone can produce a football game or the Super Bowl, but it takes a village to produce the Olympics.”

Ebersol’s history with the IOC lends a comfort factor, he said. But he noted that many of the people who work on the Olympics are free-lancers who could quickly move to another network, and that any advantage as a longtime rightsholder could evaporate if NBC is significantly outbid.

With all of the available ESPN networks — the mother ship, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPN News, ESPNU and the Spanish-language ESPN Deportes — Disney can offer a young audience that sees ESPN as the chief voice for sports on TV, Simmelkjaer said. The bid could also include the Disney Channel and ABC Family, along with the ABC broadcast network.

Some competitors have privately suggested that the ESPN team may be well-suited to the sports aspect of the Olympics but not necessarily attuned to the games’ cultural meaning. Simmelkjaer said that ignores the long history of the Olympics on ABC Sports, with Roone Arledge and Jim McKay.

ESPN may also have the intimidation factor at work. The company “blew Fox away” with its successful bid this fall for college football’s Bowl Championship Series, Pilson said.

But Simmelkjaer cautioned that people shouldn’t necessarily draw comparisons.

“Every rights opportunity is different,” he said.

News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch has already signaled an aggressive interest in the Olympics. The IOC this fall awarded Turkish TV rights to the 2014 and 2016 games to Fox Turkey, a Murdoch company. The IOC also awarded the Italian rights to four games to Murdoch’s SKY Italia.

A U.S. bid could include the Fox broadcast network, the FX cable network, Fox News Channel and a broad range of regional sports channels. The sports channels have strong identities in local markets because they carry Major League baseball teams, whose schedules would need to be worked around.

Fox may not have the firepower of Disney and NBC, “but they have proven to be very smart and aggressive competitors,” Pilson said. “I would never rule Fox out.”

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