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The TV networks may be lean and mean nowadays, but at least one of them still is willing to say to the Olympics, "Take me, Darling, I'm yours." With a bid that made a mockery of frugality but also made sense for the third-rated network, CBS outbid NBC to secure the U.S. broadcast rights to the 1992 Winter Olympics at Albertville, France, for a stunning $243 million.
The two networks submitted their bids in sealed envelopes to the International Olympic Committee last week in New York City. The IOC contingent, which included famed skier Jean-Claude Killy, had expected the Games to command several million dollars less, particularly after ABC shocked the IOC and the broadcast community with an eleventh-hour decision not to participate in the bidding. Because the networks aren't the money trees they once were, this was only the third-richest round of bidding in Olympic history. ABC paid $309 million for this year's Calgary Games, and September's Seoul Games cost NBC $300 million.
NBC, which bid $175 million for the Albertville Games, sweetened its tender by offering the IOC and the Albertville Organizing Committee 50% of all ad revenues in excess of $325 million, which, according to some estimates, could have raised the value of its bid to $220 million. Nonetheless, by the time CBS and the IOC were celebrating their agreement with a magnum of champagne, NBC Sports president Arthur Watson was needling his CBS counterpart, Neal Pilson, for overspending.
" ABC had its Calgary; this one could be CBS's Calgary," said Watson, referring to ABC's reported loss of $65 million on the Winter Games. "Pilson speaks with forked tongue. He preaches one thing [austerity] and then doesn't practice it. This shocks me. How the hell could they leave that much money on the table?"
Said Pilson, "Art Watson can manage his business and we'll manage ours. This bid reflected the value of the Games to CBS. The winner can always look back and say we could've bid less, and the loser can look back and say we should've bid more. In the end we will have the Olympics four years from now and the other guys won't."
"We're a very strong company financially," said CBS president and CEO Laurence Tisch. "We can afford to take the risk of a $10 million or $15 million loss on an event the magnitude of an Olympics."
Still, CBS is taking a chance by spending so lavishly to land the Games. No one knows in which direction the soft sports marketplace is headed. The six-to nine-hour time difference between Albertville and the U.S. poses another risk: Because of it, prime-time coverage will be taped and the results of events will generally be known. To recover its costs, CBS projects carrying more than 100 hours, some 10 more than ABC aired from Calgary.
But the deal can't be considered a mistake when one takes into account how desperately CBS needed to make a statement to its affiliates, employees, advertisers and potential investors. So serious are CBS's ratings and public relations problems that it could hardly afford not to get the Games. Keep in mind that for all the difficulties the Calgary Games caused ABC, they pushed the network into second place in prime time last season.
If CBS delighted the IOC, ABC disappointed and angered the committee with its decision not to participate in the bidding. ABC still resents IOC TV chairman Dick Pound and agent Barry Frank, who represents the organizing committee in TV negotiations, for allegedly trapping the network into overpaying for the rights to the Calgary Games. Was this ABC's way of getting back?
"I was upset that ABC would choose to make an announcement at a time when it would not help," said Pound. Frank believes the announcement was "timed to discredit [the rights] to some degree. I felt there was a little bit of dog in the manger in this."