Olympics Sales Werent Golden

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Cable's ad-sales performance for the third quarter was hardly Olympian. Like U.S. sprinter Marion Jones in one Sydney, Australia, relay race, MSOs came up short in their quest for gold.

Third-quarter sales figures saw a double-digit jump, according to the MSOs and interconnects that provided percentages. But they weren't up as much as executives in the fast-growing sector have come to expect.

"The first seven months were very strong, with growth well into double digits," said Roger Sverdlik, senior vice president of national ad sales at Comcast Corp.'s cable unit. "But sometime in August, sales hit a wall."

Sverdlik attributed the "considerable slowdown" to a reduction in spending by automotive clients and the overall effect of the Summer Olympics in Sydney.

"We sold a fair amount of Olympics packages," he added. "We made some hay with it, though we certainly didn't make a killing, since we came in late."

Comcast and Cablevision Systems Corp. signed up to carry NBC Cable's Olympic coverage just prior to the opening ceremonies. Operators received three minutes of local avails per hour during the CNBC and MSNBC coverage, the typical amount for those networks.

Among other MSOs interviewed for this article, Cable One Inc. signed on for the Olympics in July and Time Warner Cable signed last June.

The NBC television network's broadcast Olympic coverage also drained cash from the marketplace, noted Eglon Simons, senior vice president and general manager of the New York Interconnect. Getting a late start also hurt his buying entity's sales push.

Adlink-the Los Angeles interconnect-finished the third quarter up 15 percent, compared to a 38 percent gain over the first nine months of 2000, said vice president of marketing and communications Vicki Lins.

The Olympics, however, garnered $3 million for Adlink. Lins said the L.A. interconnect signed four Olympic clients, including BMW and Aladdin Hotels.

The third quarter proved disappointing for Cable One, said vice president of ad sales Ron Pancratz. It came in ahead of 1999, he said, but behind budget.

August was "one of the worst months we've had in a very long time" and September was "mixed," according to Pancratz.

And cable's first Summer Olympics was "no help," he added, due to its "getting out late with our packages and to not having solid insertion in all our markets for CNBC and MSNBC."

MSNBC and CNBC Olympic coverage averaged a Nielsen Media Research rating between 0.5 and 0.6, according to Jim Klunder, vice president and general manager at interconnect Comcast MarketLink Philadelphia.

National ratings for the two networks fell far short of the 1.21 average that Turner Network Television generated in 1998 for its Winter Olympics coverage.

The third-quarter uptick at New York's Time Warner CityCable was just 20 percent, said president Larry Fischer, the worst of the three quarters. But he was more upbeat than others.

"We did OK," Fischer said. "We got some lift from the Olympics on CNBC and MSNBC."

Like the other Olympic takers, Fischer felt "there was not a lot of time to sell in." That's despite the fact that Time Warner had signed on last June, earlier than most.

Most of the ad-sales executives were hopeful that in the future, more lead time will mean better sales results for NBC's Olympic cable coverage from 2002 through 2008.

For his part, Pancratz was optimistic that Cable One will be able to do more advance selling for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games than this year. The fact that the 2002 broadcast should be mostly live will improve ratings, he added.

Charter Communications Inc. executives were unwilling to talk, although a spokesman had indicated that its local Olympics avails were sold out. The MSO signed its Olympics pact last June.

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