News

NBC Ups Olympic Output

6/06/2004 8:00 PM Eastern

NBC is planning a 1,200-hour schedule of programming for its coverage of the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece — a package NBC officials said will be a big moneymaker for the cable affiliates that paid extra to carry the games on the company’s news channels.

The programmer had originally planned to run 806.5 hours of Olympics programming in August on its broadcast network, cable outlets MSNBC, CNBC and Bravo and Spanish-language hybrid Telemundo.

But following NBC’s recent $14 billion acquisition of Vivendi Universal Entertainment and its flagship USA Network, the Peacock and its cable siblings will now distribute about 1,200 hours of programming from Athens, NBC Olympics executive vice president Gary Zenkel said last week.

Cable operators are being allotted 3 minutes per hour of local avails for Bravo, MSNBC, CNBC and newly acquired USA, which top NBC Sports executive Dick Ebersol recently said is destined to be “the cable home of the Olympics.”

Zenkel wouldn’t say how many hours of programming would run on USA, saving details for a future announcement, possibly this week.

Olympics programming has been a key tool to drive distribution for CNBC and MSNBC. Long-term deals for those two networks cut with affiliates in 2000 included annual surcharges of more than $1 per subscriber for Olympics programming.

Those agreements covered five Olympics, running from 2000 through 2008.

In June 2003, NBC cut a $2 billion deal with the International Olympic Committee for U.S. television rights to the 2010 and 2012 Olympics. Cable operators are expected to help pick up the tab for those games, but NBC Cable president David Zaslav said the programmer hasn’t yet reached agreements with operators that run beyond 2008.

NEW PITCHES COMING

During the next few years, NBC Cable will pitch cable operators broad carriage deals that include distribution for all of its networks, including USA and Sci Fi Channel, Zaslav said. When asked if NBC would seek a license fee hike for top-rated USA because of the addition of Olympics programming, Zaslav said he would look to increase the value of the channel.

“We’re going to be investing a lot of money and a lot of resources and a lot of effort on the NBC platform to make USA, Sci Fi, CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo — all of our cable networks — more important to viewers. That’s our No. 1 focus, and after we’ve done that we’ll start to think about what the value is for those services,” Zaslav said.

Increased terrorism warnings have raised some concerns that the Athens Olympics could be cancelled, or that the U.S. team could withdraw from the games. Several U.S. pro basketball players have declined invitations to join the Olympic team, citing family obligations and safety concerns.

Zaslav declined to discuss if NBC would offer cable operators a rebate on the surcharges they have paid to carry the Olympics should the event be cancelled. But he and Zenkel both emphasized they are very confident the Athens Games will go on as scheduled.

“I was in Athens last week,” Zenkel said. “The progress there is remarkable, and there’s absolutely nobody here concerned about that. The Olympics is going to happen.”

Zaslav said NBC will provide its owned-and-operated broadcast stations and affiliates with day-old Olympics programming shot in HDTV for their digital channels.

But none of NBC’s cable networks will carry HD programming from the 2004 Games — a plan NBC officials acknowledged as long ago as January.

But in sales presentations NBC cable reps gave to cable affiliates last year for the new Bravo HD Plus channel, NBC did tout the availability of HD programming from Athens as a reason to carry the channel. And one Bravo HD Plus affiliate, GCI Inc. in Alaska, agreed to carry the channel partly because of the availability of HD programming, according to GCI vice president of marketing, sales and programming Bob Ornberg.

“For me, that was another selling feature of putting it [Bravo HD Plus] on, so I could say, 'Tune in for the Olympics on Bravo HD,’” Ornberg said.

Zaslav acknowledged that NBC Cable sales reps touted the availability of HD programming on Bravo HD Plus as a selling point for the channel. But after considering feedback from operators, NBC decided to wait until the 2006 Olympics to run Olympics programming on Bravo HD Plus or through a separate cable channel dedicated to HD Olympics programming.

“We did at one point talk about potentially having some Olympic programming, and one of the possible places we would put it was Bravo HD. But the reason we didn’t do the Olympics on cable in high-def was because of feedback we got from the industry that we should hold off because they didn’t want to help support the economics,” he said.

Zaslav said Bravo HD Plus will run some highlights from previous Olympics in August, but that the programming won’t contain any events from Greece.

GCI’s Ornberg said he first learned that Bravo HD Plus wouldn’t telecast Olympics programming from Athens when he received a message from a reporter last Wednesday. Ornberg said Thursday that he had attempted to reach his NBC Cable sales rep to discuss the situation.

NBC Cable spokeswoman Alyssa Donelan rebutted Ornberg’s claim last Friday. She said an NBC sales rep informed Ornberg “a few months ago” that Bravo HD+ wouldn’t contain Olympics programming from Athens in August.

Most Bravo HD Plus affiliates launched the channel after Jan. 1, when NBC had publicly said the cable channels wouldn’t have Olympics HD programming, officials said.

HD ON NBC

Operators that have agreements to carry the high-definition channels of local NBC stations and affiliates will still be able to tout the availability HD Olympics programming on NBC as a way to help drive HDTV set-tops and programming packages.

Indeed, the Cable & Telecommunications for Marketing kicked off such an ad campaign over the weekend with spots that ran during NBC’s coverage of the Belmont Stakes.

CTAM officials also confirmed they would detail a separate HDTV marketing campaign involving Panasonic during the next two weeks.

But not all cable operators have agreements with NBC stations and affiliates to carry the Olympics, and some NBC affiliates haven’t yet launched HDTV feeds. That’s the case in Alaska, where KTTU-TV in Anchorage, the state’s largest market, won’t launch an HD feed until this fall, Ornberg said.

NBC Cable has also given cable affiliates turnkey local marketing kits that contain a “Can’t Get Enough of The Complete Olympics” slogan. Operators can use the materials to market products such as HDTV, high-speed data services and Latino programming through Telemundo’s Spanish-language coverage of the Olympics.

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