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THE SEOUL GAMES / THE FINAL DAY : Unsatisfactory Job Nets NBC $80 Million Profit

It is now perfectly obvious: One television network cannot televise the Summer Olympics and satisfy the American public.

The No. 1 complaint: Too many commercials.

No. 2: Too much jumping around from sport to sport.

No. 3: Incomplete coverage.

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Something needs to be done before the 1992 Summer Games at Barcelona. And it can be, provided the International Olympic Committee, not to mention the television networks themselves, decide quality coverage is more important than the almighty dollar.

Sometime later this year, or maybe early near year, the IOC and the Barcelona organizers will meet with representatives from American television.

If the IOC does the correct thing, it will not award exclusive rights to one network. What would work a lot better would be for the IOC to sell a three-tier package to American television.

This is how such a proposal might work:

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The first tier would go to a major network--ABC, CBS or NBC--and would allow that network to televise all Olympics sports.

The second tier would go to a pay-cable network, such as HBO, and would include all sports except, say, track and field, gymnastics, boxing, and swimming.

Thus, such sports as basketball and volleyball would be featured by a cable network that does not have commercials. Viewers, therefore, would be able to see every basket in a major basketball game and every point in a volleyball match.

The third tier would, ideally, go to ESPN, the 24-hour sports channel. It could show none of the sports mentioned above, but all others, such as cycling, wrestling, baseball, tennis, fencing and so on.

By 1992, cable will be more widespread than it is today, so most viewers could pick and choose what they want to watch. But even for people without cable, the major network would still provide highlights of, say, a major basketball game.

In Seoul, NBC found that it could not cover everything. During the U.S.-Soviet basketball game, for example, NBC had to break away to cover the men’s 400-meter final.

The cutaway bothered people more interested in the basketball game, and the brief coverage of the race bothered track and field fans.

Had the basketball game been on HBO, however, NBC could have stayed with track and field, if it wanted to, and done only reports on the basketball game, followed by complete highlights later on.

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Earlier in the Seoul Games, NBC tried using a split screen to show the U.S.-Canada basketball game and Greg Louganis’ final dive in the springboard competition. But that didn’t go over well.

Switching around from sport to sport is distracting to most. It’s like someone coming into your living room and changing channels.

The three-tier plan might help solve the commercial-glut problem, too.

The major network would pay much less for a non-exclusive package. Thus, it would not have to sell as many commercials to make a profit.

NBC paid $300 million for exclusive rights to the Seoul Games. Exclusive rights to the Barcelona Games would figure to go for about the same, or maybe slightly more.

Non-exclusive rights, however, could go for about $150 million. The second and third tiers might, together, bring in another $100 million, making the total $250 million.

So, the IOC would have to be willing to accept about $50 million less for non-exclusive rights.

The question is: Would the IOC and the networks be willing to make a little less in order to provide a little more?

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If they are, viewers will have fewer complaints in 1992 than they did during the Games that concluded Sunday.

Then, too, there is a possibility that the IOC could get more for a combination package involving cable than for an exclusive package. If that is the case, a lot of problems will be eliminated.

Actually, NBC, all things considered, did a good job technically in Seoul. The hosts, particularly Bryant Gumbel, were smooth and well-informed.

The announcing at the competition sites, for the most part, was solid. But a few announcers were misplaced. For example, John Naber, who did such a fine job on swimming, seemed lost at water polo. And Bob Trumpy had no business doing volleyball.

The NBC graphics were excellent, the profiles well done, and reporters went after stories aggressively. The problem is, most viewers wanted to see athletic competition, not the evening news.

But the biggest problem was all those commercials, some 3,500, which figure to provide NBC with a profit of about $80 million, despite lower-than-expected ratings.

Another problem was the time difference--17 hours between Seoul and Los Angeles-- that made it difficult to tell if events were from yesterday, today or tomorrow, taped or live.

You may have tuned in Sunday afternoon and seen coverage of the men’s marathon. If you had stayed up Saturday night, you would have known the marathon was shown live, although, incredibly, KNBC in Los Angeles saw fit to interrupt it and the Games coverage in general with an episode of “Family Feud.”

Anyway, the marathon ended about 11:45 p.m., which is 2:45 a.m. in the East. Much of the track and field competition ended at about that time, so, for a change, TV viewers in the West did not get the worst of it.

Imagine, though, how much more enjoyable the coverage would have been if viewers had the option of watching some of the competition on cable, and some of it commercial-free.

By 1992, perhaps, they might get that opportunity.


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