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NBC, sister networks offer full plate of Olympics

Posted: Saturday August 7, 2004 12:17PM; Updated: Saturday August 7, 2004 12:17PM
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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) -- When the Olympics kick off next Friday, NBC is confident American viewers will flock to see Michael Phelps swim for Mark Spitz's record, U.S. women's gymnasts defend their world title and sprinter Maurice Greene dash for gold in the 100 meters.

But less certain is how many will tune in to sister cable channels CNBC and Bravo to watch extensive coverage of events like taekwondo, badminton, handball, archery and table tennis.

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NBC Universal, the General Electric Co.-owned family of broadcast and cable networks, plans to bring U.S. viewers unprecedented, round-the-clock coverage of the Summer Games that open in Athens Friday, Aug. 13, and run through Aug. 29.

By any measure, NBC Universal's game plan is ambitious. For 17 straight days, NBC and its four cable siblings -- MSNBC, CNBC, USA and Bravo -- along with sister Spanish broadcaster Telemundo and NBC's high-definition digital TV affiliates will carry a combined total of 1,210 hours of Olympic programming.

That's nearly triple the 441 total hours from the Sydney Games four years ago, and more than seven times the 171 hours from Atlanta in 1996. And for the first time all 28 Summer Olympic sports will receive some measure of coverage.

The NBC mothership alone will present 226 hours in all. But prime-time coverage -- mainly of marquee sports like swimming, gymnastics, track and diving -- has been reduced to four hours a night from the five hours during the relatively low-rated Sydney Games.

None of the prime-time programming will air live due to the seven-hour time difference between Athens and the Eastern U.S. But 300 hours of live coverage will air across the channels, more than any Olympics when counting daytime cable telecasts.

NBC Universal is parsing its cable coverage according to the viewers for specialized cable channels. CNBC, with its heavy male viewership, will be the principal home of boxing. Upscale Bravo will cover sailing, equestrian events, and tennis.

Telemundo will break ground by providing Spanish-language coverage of soccer, boxing, baseball and basketball, marking the first non-English Olympic broadcasts in U.S. history. And the "high-def" coverage on NBC's 124 HDTV affiliates will be Summer Olympics first for a U.S. broadcaster.

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Despite a general decline in ratings in recent years, the Olympics still lord over the TV landscape, offering advertisers a rare chance to reach mass audiences. They also give NBC a powerful platform to promote its upcoming lineup of fall TV shows.

Having already sold 96 percent of its advertising, NBC said it was assured of seeing profits on the $793 million it paid for exclusive U.S. rights to carry the Athens Games.

Prime-time ads, which NBC said accounts for at least 80 percent of its revenue, are going for as much as $700,000 per 30-second spot, and NBC said it expects to reach its target of $1 billion in advertising revenues by the time the games open.

Randy Falco, president of NBC Universal Television Networks Group, has called the marathon coverage "an experiment," and conceded that some events may draw little interest.

"Some of it'll work, some of it won't," he said in a recent conference call with reporters.

Still, financial analysts saw little downside to NBC's saturation strategy.

"You already have the capacity. You have all these cable networks. You might as well use them," said Paul Kim, senior media analyst for brokerage firm Tradition Asiel Securities.

"In an age of a 100-channel universe, why not have as many channels as possible televising the games if you own the rights to them?" said Tim Spengler, director of national broadcast for New York-based media planning and buying agency Initiative.

NBC officials shrug off the notion that recent doping scandals and a relative dearth of household-name athletes will dim viewer interest.

"Stars are made at the Olympics during the games," NBC Sports spokesman Kevin Sullivan told Reuters, citing such standouts from the 2000 Summer Games as Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner or diver Laura Wilkinson.

There is another element to this year's games that NBC has not talked much about. The threat of terrorism that has hung over Athens "clearly raises the voltage of all the coverage," said Bob Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.

"Just like there's a hum in the background at any hockey game that a fight could break out, or the hum at the back of an auto race that someone could get into a crash and be killed, there is a very serious subtext to this entire Olympic period," Thompson said.

Reuters/VNU

Copyright 2004 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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