Some Operators 'Ahead of Curve' in Olympic Pitches

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With the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics just three months away, cable's local ad-sales executive have kicked their efforts into high gear.

Cable operators are "having a tough time out there selling anything," conceded NBC Cable vice president of ad sales Brian Hunt, who spoke at a New York press conference last week held to discuss Olympic sales materials. But the surge in patriotism that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks could work in favor of those selling national and local ad time during the games.

Local cable ad-sales executives are packaging units in MSNBC and CNBC's Olympic telecasts, slated for Feb. 9 to Feb. 24.

On the spot-cable end, National Cable Communications Inc. senior vice president Andrew Ward said the event "looks like a promising opportunity" in 2002.

"First-quarter [buying] really hasn't broken yet, but we think we'll be successful with that," he said.

While most affiliates are "starting to go out there now to secure their packages," said Hunt, some are "ahead of the curve" — particularly those in the mountain states, where skiing and other winter sports are popular.

Sales have been "phenomenal" for AT&T Broadband's Denver and Salt Lake City systems, both of which had sold 80 percent of inventory through last Tuesday, he said.

But Kirt Burton, general manager of AT&T Media Services in Salt Lake City, called Hunt's estimate for the host city overly optimistic.

"[It's] a pretty easy sell, we're selling real fast," he said, though he wouldn't offer a percentage figure. "We're a ways from having this shut down."

The system sold to clients in the automotive, insurance, retail and financial categories, Burton said. The buys also included tickets to Olympic events and an invitation to a VIP reception at the 2001 World Cup skiing event, set for December in Salt Lake.

Burton declined to discuss pricing.

Charter Communications Inc. in Madison, Wisc., has sold 30 percent of its Olympic inventory, said local sales manager David O'Keefe. To date, big spenders have included automotive and health-care clients, as well as a major ski resort.

The Madison system's goal is to sell out by Dec. 15, he said.

Systems elsewhere have taken creative approaches to pitching the Olympics. In Buffalo, N.Y., Adelphia Communications Inc. and NBC affiliate WGRZ-TV are jointly selling both broadcast and cable avails, as has been previously reported. And NBC Cable officials said Time Warner Cable and KGET in Bakersfield, Calif., have planned a similar pairing — with a twist of their own.

There, KGET has pitched the local MSNBC inventory on both Olympics and non-Olympics programming, while Time Warner proffered the CNBC avails.

Time Warner Cable spokesman Mike Luftman would not get into specific local strategies, though he noted that across the MSO, 50 percent of Olympic inventory has been sold.

Adelphia executives in Buffalo have said they're also bullish on other joint pitches for sporting events with WGRZ. And a key media buyer — Initiative Media North America senior vice president and director of local broadcast Howard Nass — sees more tandem broadcast-and-cable selling ahead.

But NBC Cable's Hunt was unwilling to go out on that limb.

"It's an innovative idea [and] one that can work in certain markets," he said. But Hunt would not say whether NBC is even interested in applying that local sales approach to such events as the National Basketball Association and the National Association for Stock Car Racing. NBC and Turner Sports are TV rights-holders to both entities.

"It's interesting to see [joint buying] in one market, rather than [via] a station-group ownership," noted Zenith Media executive vice president and director of local broadcast Bonita LeFlore, another major local time buyer.

"I would not be surprised to see other combinations between local affiliates and cable systems, as well as radio stations." she added. "I think this will be on the increase once the restrictions on station ownership have been addressed."

LeFlore didn't attribute the new joint efforts to the present sluggish economy.

"I think there has been increased pressure to have creative solutions when the marketplace continues to fragment and erode," she said.

Last year — when NBC offered the Sydney Summer Olympics to CNBC and MSNBC affiliates — many MSOs waited until the eleventh hour to sign up for the package and missed prime ad-selling opportunities. But operators have been able to incorporate the 2002 Winter Olympics into their packages this time out, noted NBC Cable president David Zaslav.

Those affiliates should also be able to capitalize on a consumer sweepstakes pushing the Salt Lake Games. Such an effort couldn't be mounted in time for Sydney, but was high on the 2002 wish lists of most cable affiliates and interconnects, according to Hunt.

Visa International will conduct the "Bring Home the Gold Sweepstakes" for the Salt Lake games.

Hunt has suggested to NBC's cable affiliates that they take advantage of the Visa connection to pitch retail chains — and major Visa clients — such as The Home Depot Inc., Office Depot Inc., Circuit City Stores Inc. and Target Corp. on supporting this cable-exclusive sweepstakes with their own local-cable buys.

Visa "does a tremendous amount of in-store promotion" to support the credit card, noted NBC vice president of marketing Mark Hotz. The programmer will take advantage of Visa's presence in 250,000-plus retail sites with posters that read, "Watch NBC's The Complete Olympics." Whenever the U.S. team wins a gold medal, a Visa customer will be selected in a random drawing to win $10,000, Hotz said.

Later, affiliates will be able to use consumer research on the sweepstakes results to persuade retailers to continue buying local cable after the Olympics conclude, Hunt added.

AT&T's Burton said he's acted on that plan, with negotiations now underway with Home Depot.

Zaslav said most of MSNBC's Olympics coverage "will run during the day as mostly exclusive, that is, unopposed by other Olympics coverage" on NBC or CNBC.

NBC is expected to announce the full schedule sometime next month.

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