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The Big Three Aren't Sold On Seoul
William Taaffe
September 23, 1985
In marathon bargaining sessions, the major U.S. networks refused to meet the $500 million price for TV rights to the 1988 Summer Games
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September 23, 1985

The Big Three Aren't Sold On Seoul

In marathon bargaining sessions, the major U.S. networks refused to meet the $500 million price for TV rights to the 1988 Summer Games

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In Lausanne, CBS and ABC executives seemed particularly insouciant. Roone Arledge, ABC's notoriously reclusive president of news and sports, spent two days ordering from room service while plotting tactics with a table stake severely limited by Cap Cities. "It's not life or death; we're not gonna bite our fingernails to see what happens," he said during one rare appearance before the press. Acting as Arledge's eyes and ears in the hotel lobby was a Frenchman named George Croses, ABC's vice-president of European affairs. Filling a similar role for NBC Sports president Arthur Watson was Alex Gilady, an Israeli who is that network's vice-president of European planning and development. They monitored doors, elevators and house phones around the clock to watch for telltale signs of covert deals.

Twelve hours into the talks, a bellman paged Arledge. "Mr. Arledge, phone call for Mr. Arledge. Is Mr. Arledge in the lobby?"

Quipped Gilady from his perch in an easy chair: "Mr. Arledge is not, was not, nor ever will be in this lobby."

Behind closed doors the network honchos took turns negotiating over a green baize table with three representatives of SLOOC and the IOC's three-member TV committee. The real power in the room was the head of the TV committee, Richard W. Pound, a Montreal lawyer who is a possible successor to IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch. Pound wanted the Koreans to accept a bid, even if it didn't meet their $500 million minimum. At one point he took the SLOOC members aside for a lengthy private lecture. It was the Olympic equivalent of being taken to the woodshed. But the Koreans, who were receiving their orders via telephone from Rho Tae Woo, chairman of South Korea's ruling Democratic Party, refused to budge.

NBC came the closest to victory. So eager was Watson to land the prize that he haggled until 1:55 a.m. Friday. For the next four hours he held meetings with his staff in his suite and reappeared at the bargaining table at 8 a.m. sharp. While Watson planned further strategy, another of his aides, Jarobin Gilbert, was seen strolling the empty streets of Lausanne, conferring with Mr. Kim.

Sources said NBC's final bid included an offer to pass a sizable chunk of its profits, if any, back to SLOOC. Watson denied that he made any such profit-sharing proposal. Whatever his offer, it still fell well below $500 million and the Koreans said no. By midmorning Friday, Arledge reportedly had raised ABC's hard cash offer to $340 million. CBS never came up from its initial position.

As the talks dragged on, one participant said to a reporter, "For your ears only: There will be no puff of smoke."

An hour later, Samaranch held a somber press conference to confirm the big strikeout. Then he said, privately, "The problem with the local organizing committees is that they always want the last dollar. They don't care whether they have good relations with the networks. But we have to go on to the next Olympics and the next."

Frank has talked of auctioning off the Games to individual TV stations in 200 American cities, thereby forming a syndicated network that might collectively pay more than one major network alone. Pound, however, is prepared to quash this idea before it raises its ugly head. A barbed-wire hookup, he believes, would tarnish the image of the Games and antagonize the big three networks in future negotiations. Pound's more likely course is to talk tough to the Koreans once again. The IOC TV committee is legally empowered to take the television rights away from SLOOC and cut its own deal. And that deal could include all three networks, with the Games divided by sport and spread around the TV dial. That has never happened before, but the day may soon arrive when one network can't program enough hours and sell enough commercials to cover its production costs.

Frank is confident that a deal will be made. But the dynamics of Olympic TV are changing. Tune in—next week, next month or next spring—for the finish of the real Olympic marathon.

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