With ABC and NBC refusing to bid, CBS bought rights to the 1994 Winter Olympics for $300 million Wednesday--$57 million more than it paid for the 1992 Winter Games.
Its purchase of the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway, gives the network consecutive Winter Games as part of its long-range bid to regain the lead in prime-time ratings, CBS officials said.
"It's a very important step for us in our whole programming strategy," said Howard Stringer, CBS Broadcast Group president, whose network last year bought radio and TV rights to the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France.
That purchase, for $243 million, marked the first time since 1960 that CBS had bought broadcast rights to televise a Winter Olympics. That first acquisition of the TV rights to the Winter Games in Squaw Valley, Calif., cost $50,000.
CBS made its surprise announcement at a news conference here shortly after the deal was signed.
The starting price for the bargaining for 1994 was $300 million, said Barry Frank, a New York-based consultant to the Lillehammer Organizing Committee.
That price obviously was not right for ABC, and apparently scared away NBC.
Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports, said his staff had spent considerable time getting ready for bidding, but when the International Olympics Committee "informed us that CBS was prepared to guarantee approximately $300 million, we decided that this was substantially in excess of what the value (of the Games) would be to NBC and its affiliates."
President Dennis Swanson of ABC Sports, which paid the winter record of $309 million for rights to the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, and which had televised 10 of the previous 12 Olympics before that, had no comment on CBS' purchase.
Neal H. Pilson, president of CBS Sports, said it had been CBS' strategy to acquire both Winter Games and that he fully expects each to be profitable.
CBS will have about 120 hours of coverage for the 1994 Games, about four hours more than for the 1992 Games, with about 55 hours of each in prime time. Pilson made no estimate of how much of that would be live.
Last year, ABC, digging in its heels over rising prices and changes in bidding arrangements, refused to bid for the 1992 Winter Games, saying it "would not engage in a multistage auction."
NBC, which last December paid the overall Olympic record of $400 million for rights to the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain, also took a pass on the Winter Games for that year afterrefusing to offer more than $175 million.
Ebersol wasn't available for further comment, but an NBC source explained that the IOC had told NBC officials in May that CBS was guaranteeing at least $290 million for rights to the Games.
The IOC officials, the source said, were told that NBC executives hadn't even seen the Norwegian site, not far from Oslo. An NBC delegation visited the site two weeks ago and considered the CBS offer.
Finally, the source said, they told the IOC "that if that's what they're (CBS) offering, then take the money and run."
To help defray costs of its winning bid for the 1992 Summer Games, NBC plans what will be a the first involvement in the Olympics by cable TV, even though cable has steadily nibbled away at network audiences over the last nine years.
NBC expects to announce this fall the sale of lesser events at the Barcelona Games on a pay-per-view basis. The showings would air on SportsChannel, which serves about 8 million homes.
However, Pilson suggested that CBS might not sell its Winter Games events to cable in either 1992 or 1994.
No decision about seeking what he called a "cable package" has been made, Pilson told reporters, but with rights to both Olympics now in hand, CBS can consider that "or make a decision to keep them totally on the network."
The CBS purchases, totaling $543 million, are not the network's biggest sports buy. CBS last year won exclusive rights to televise major league baseball games for four seasons, from 1990 through 1993, for slightly more than $1 billion.