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Kenny Moore
August 13, 1990
Ted Turner's festival was bedeviled by a general lack of interest nationwide. Now its future is in doubt
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August 13, 1990

But It Didn't Play In Peoria

Ted Turner's festival was bedeviled by a general lack of interest nationwide. Now its future is in doubt

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TBS's little clock gave the pigeons permission to switch away and only peek in for the events they cared about. No more can television, except during the Olympics, hold masses of viewers long enough to impart the facts that let them be moved by, say, team handball or water polo. There are to be few new eyes. Since the only way to build a constituency for an event is to teach people about it, the conclusion for future Goodwill Games is that, even with stronger entries in popular sports like track, ratings won't get much better than those at Seattle.

After the bills are paid and make-good time is given to advertisers, TBS's losses could total $26 million or more. So what? says TBS boss Ted Turner, almost nonchalantly. "In the capitalist world, it's not unusual to have loss leaders, or sales, to get the customers in," he says. TBS's goal is to have the Games become the best-known sports event in the world, after the Olympics and soccer's World Cup. And the financial loss, says Turner, is "a reasonable down payment toward an event that will grow in stature and at some point break even. We have a positive curve. TBS did five times the overall dollar volume it did last time."

A higher reason why it may be O.K. for the Games to lose money is that the best things in life are either free or in need of subsidies. Symphonies lose money. Buster Keaton film festivals lose money. Van Gogh died penniless. All college sports except football and maybe men's basketball lose money. To keep a society pluralistic, you have to take from the brutal and common and give to the refined and rare.

The question is how much money can TBS afford to lose? Turner's board has yet to commit TBS to the 1994 Goodwill Games, scheduled for Leningrad and Moscow. "We have a contract in place with the Soviets," said Paul Beckham, the Goodwill Games president. "But I can't obligate this company until the board says I can. In their minds it has to be fiscally prudent. That doesn't mean it has to make money. But it has to make sense."

"We'll poll the board and have an answer in six weeks," said Turner.

The Soviets, who have no vote on the future of the Goodwill Games, would hate to lose them. "We need this," said Pyotr Reshetov, deputy chairman of Gosteleradio, the Soviet radio and television agency. "We need it for our perestroika. The cultural exchanges are teaching our people what is going on in the world."

For perspective, listen to an observer who was stockpiling six pairs of his favorite running shoes as the Games drew to a close. "Everything good is discontinued," he said with a touch of melancholy.

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