Where were ABC and CBS and Fox? NBC's acquisition of the rights to televise the 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008 Olympics has left the other networks shocked and embarrassed. ABC Sports, which once dominated sports—and Olympic—coverage, is a reduced presence. CBS Sports, already reeling from its baseball losses of the early '90s and a general malaise at its network, has suffered another blow. Rupert Murdoch's Fox network, which has moved aggressively into baseball and the NFL, has seen its momentum blunted. "Does cardiac arrest say it?" says one rival executive, who wished to remain anonymous.
But when you've been hit by a surprise attack at dawn, it's your own fault if you haven't posted a lookout. NBC's competitors are having a particularly hard time explaining how they could have been caught flat-footed last week after NBC's first preemptive strike in August, when Ebersol & Co. secured the rights to the Sydney and Salt Lake City Games for $1.25 billion. That should have been ample warning that a free-for-all was in progress. Still, the other networks responded with a fatal inactivity.
On Dec. 12, senior executives at CBS Sports, whose network had recently been bought by Westinghouse, were preparing for a press conference—on college football. ABC and Fox apparently were simply waiting for an old-fashioned Olympic rights auction for the 2004 Games that never happened. Before the competition could finish clearing their throats, NBC already had another $2.3 billion on the table for the 2004, 2006 and 2008 Olympics. "They didn't give us any warning," CBS Sports senior vice president Rick Gentile says. "We thought we had earned the right to compete. It wasn't a level playing field. We were playing by the rules."
But IOC officials suggest that the other networks simply allowed themselves to be left in the starting blocks. "All of the TV people in the U.S. could have said, 'Let's do this,' " says IOC executive board member Anita DeFrantz. "Nobody else took the initiative."
The advantages NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol enjoyed over his rivals in dealing with the IOC included Olympic officials' familiarity with him and the stability of his network. Referring to NBC's rivals, IOC television negotiator Dick Pound says, "God knows what will happen with CBS under Westinghouse. We don't know the Murdoch people. And [with ABC's parent company, Capital Cities, about to be merged into Disney] we don't know ABC's position with regard to the Olympics."
In fact, some industry sources suggest that Ebersol could not have achieved his Olympic feat without the unwitting help of some mediocre competition. Says one, "The joke going around is, 'He's doing a great job, but he's playing in the AFC Central.' "