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The Olympics and TV

The Olympic Games had been under way just a few days in Seoul when NBC learned that fewer Americans were watching its television coverage than its advertisers had been told would be. The network, as a result, had to compensate its clients by giving them a certain amount of free air time. That meant adding still more commercials to an already commercial-heavy schedule; ultimately NBC would run about 3,500 of them before the Olympic torch was extinguished last Sunday night. But adding to the volume of commercials also added to the frustration of viewers who felt they were seeing too little competition as it was. People who tuned in hoping to watch the world’s best athletes at work were turned off by the amount of non-coverage they had to endure.

In the end NBC made money with its nearly 180 hours of coverage, as much as $80 million on an investment of $300 million for TV rights and another $140 million for expenses. Like any company, NBC is in business to make a profit. But government-licensed TV networks also exist to serve the public. Was the public well served by NBC’s coverage? Critics complain that too much of it was choppy, repetitious, overly oriented toward American-dominated events. Whatever one’s opinions, raw economics as always had a lot to do with what was shown and when. Glamor events like track and field, basketball, swimming and diving drew a lot of prime-time attention and commercial big bucks--up to $330,000 for a 30-second spot--not least because these were venues with strong American competitors. Less glamorous events--cycling and soccer come to mind--drew far less attention, even though they command the passionate interest of millions.

The point in noting this is not to add to the chorus of complaints about NBC, but to look ahead to the TV coverage of the 1992 summer Olympics. Already there is talk that TV rights to the Barcelona games could be sold for $400 million or more, nearly double what ABC bid to cover the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The problem thus recurs: If one network buys exclusive coverage to the games it will have to sell many hours of commercials just to recoup its investment;thus 1992 could see the same drop in audience interest as 1988.

But what if the International Olympic Committee and the TV networks agree that exclusivity has become too expensive to be practical? What if, as Times sports columnist Larry Stewart suggests, TV rights--and costs--were instead split up among both over-the-air and cable networks? That would allow fuller coverage of some events, especially the less popular ones, with presumably less time devoted to selling products. The point of TV coverage is to bring the Olympics to as large an audience as possible. The technical competence to do that is there. The need now is to make sure the intended audience doesn’t flee in boredom or frustration.

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