They want us to be like three scorpions fighting in a bottle. When it's over, two will be dead and the winner will be exhausted.
Thus spoke Roone Arledge, president of ABC Sports, of the way it was when the three major American television networks joined in bitter battle with the government of the Soviet Union over the U.S. rights to televise the 1980 Summer Olympic Games. It was a Cold War confrontation with an absolutely classic—if also a somewhat comic—cast of adversaries. On one side stood the network executives, representing all that is richest, sleekest, most glamorous about the free-enterprise system. They came from stately Manhattan skyscrapers, quick-witted, supersophisticated salesmen given to Gucci shoes and manicured hands. If they were not the cream of U.S. business, the network men were certainly from the tip of the vast capitalist iceberg.
On the other side stood a battery of grim Russian bureaucrats—burly, pallid fellows, some former peasants with hands still hard from years of labor in the fields of Mother Russia. They were canny technocrats and politicians from the cold corridors of the Kremlin; some were in their 70s, and their longevity alone made it clear that they were among the wiliest of men in this land of purges. It also is worth noting that the network representatives were not entirely without this instinct for survival, being no less vulnerable than Soviet politicians to swift turns of fortune that could send them to the Siberias of American business.
So they joined the conflict well matched—the minions of Red Square, Moscow vs. the moguls of Sixth Avenue, New York. It would be nice to report that the result was a hard, clean, clear-cut battle between two ideological juggernauts, that two gleaming machines performed in a way that displayed the best of both systems. This did not happen. The big Olympic TV deal became bogged down in misunderstanding, misjudgment and mistakes.
In fact, during the critical closing phase of negotiations that concluded three weeks ago with an astonished National Broadcasting Company being presented with the Olympic rights for $85 million, the only real link between the two adversaries was a garrulous little German named Lothar Bock. He is a small-time "impresario" (the term he uses to describe himself) who had more experience as a booking agent for Georgian saber dancers and Mongolian tumblers than as the indispensable middleman between a bunch of cold-eyed Soviets and high-rolling TV executives. It is true that one network man described Bock as being "a bit of a klutz," but it was Bock—and Bock alone—who plodded between Moscow and Manhattan to forge the final bond that gave the Olympics to NBC. In the bargain, he earned himself a million bucks and made his name a household word from the bar at P. J. Clarke's to the boardroom at the A. C. Nielsen Company.
This bizarre situation officially began in Vienna in October 1974, when the International Olympic Committee awarded the Soviet Union the 1980 Summer Olympics. All three networks were there just to shake hands with their new adversaries. No one was selling, no one was buying. Only one network—ABC—was absolutely certain that it would bid for the Moscow Games. Under the masterful guidance of Arledge, ABC had won the rights to six of the last eight Olympics, and it covered each with increasing excellence. But except for sport, the network had been No. 3 in the ratings for many years. That changed in the 1976-77 TV season when ABC burst to the fore, partially because of its hugely successful telecasting of the Montreal Games.
CBS had televised the Rome Olympics of 1960. That was in TV's dark ages, when rights could be purchased for $550,000. Since then, CBS had never bid successfully—or even seriously—for an Olympics. The network had been rated No. 1 for so long that it seemed to be living on its own Mount Olympus, showing a godlike disdain for the Games of mere mortals. However, in mid-1974, Robert F. Wussler became CBS's vice-president in charge of sports, and he was very interested in the Moscow Games.
As for NBC, it had televised the 1972 Winter Olympics from Sapporo—an esthetic disaster and a financial disappointment. Top management was at best neutral toward the Moscow Olympics. Carl Lindemann Jr., NBC's vice-president for sports, made a couple of trips to the Soviet capital in the early going but says, "I was essentially there to wave the flag. Higher network management was ambivalent. I wanted the Games in the worst way. We had lost the Munich Olympics because of a lousy $1 million." ( ABC paid $13.5 million for the rights.)
During 1974 and 1975 the American network executives—Arledge, Wussler, Lindemann and an ever-growing cast of presidents, board chairmen, lawyers, diplomats, politicians and public-relations men—launched into a lumbering courtship that was intended to win the hearts and minds of the Soviet Olympic hierarchy. In the end, none of it seems to have made any difference in the selection of NBC. Yet the courtship was fervent, relentless—and sometimes quite public.
For example, in the fall of 1975, ABC's faltering morning show, A.M. America
, woke up the nation to a week of reports on life in the Soviet Union that were so uncritical an embarrassed ABC man said, "We made Moscow look like Cypress Gardens without the water skiers." In 1976 CBS aired a prime-time bomb that featured a shivering Mary Tyler Moore standing on a wintry Moscow street corner, hosting a show about the Bolshoi Ballet. When Wussler was asked if this was part of his Olympic campaign, he replied, "No question about it."