their first telecast in 1960, the Olympic games have enjoyed a mutually
beneficial relationship with television. TV has popularized the
event to the point that the global audience is now estimated at
one billion viewers. Over the years, however, American television
networks have become mired in a high-stakes bidding war for broadcast
rights. The stiff competition has kept rights fees inordinately
expensive and, as a result, America contributes much more money
than any other country to support the Olympics. In 1996, the Summer
games in Atlanta were priced at $456 million, a figure that did
not include the cost of the production itself, which has been estimated
at another $150 million. All of the Western European nations combined
paid $250 million in fees for the same games.
It can also be argued that network coverage of the games has expanded
to the point of excess in the attempts to recoup spiraling costs
by selling more commercial time. Nevertheless, the ratings, advertising
revenue, and prestige associated with broadcasting the games have
established the Olympic rights as among the most coveted and expensive
in all of television.
the International Olympics Committee (IOC) has become increasingly
dependent on income derived from American television. Even the scheduling
of the games has been changed, in part, to accommodate the U.S.
media. In 1994, the IOC adopted a two-year staggered schedule; the
Winter Olympics in Lillehammer were followed by the 1996 Summer
games in Atlanta. This eased the strain on corporations who were
beginning to find the price of quality Olympic advertising prohibitive.
At hundreds of thousands of dollars for a thirty-second spot, or
hundreds of millions for a sponsorship package, neither the Committee
nor the networks could afford to lose these clients. Spacing the
Summer and Winter Olympics two years apart thus allowed sponsors
to spread out their costs and also to invest in more high-profile
packages. The revised schedule also granted the IOC more time to
effectively allocate the revenue.
The conditions now surrounding the televised contests derive from
increased attention to the Olympics that began in the late 1960s.
The games first attracted a significant television audience during
the 1968 Summer games when Roone Arledge was at the helm of ABC
Sports. The combination of his in-depth, personalized approach to
sports broadcasting (embodied by ABC's Wide World of Sports)
and the technological advances in the field, such as satellite feeds
and videotape, set the standard for Olympic telecasts. Utilizing
inventive graphics and personal profiles of the athletes, Arledge
slated forty-four hours of coverage, three times as many hours as
the previous Summer games. He packaged a dramatic, exciting miniseries
for the television audience and successive producers have continued
to expand on his model.
1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany showed further growth
in costs and coverage. However, the drama of the games was overshadowed
by the grisly murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the hands of
Palestinian terrorists. Viewers watched in horror as the events
of the 5th and 6th September massacre unfolded, and television turned
into an international forum for the extremist politics of the Black
September Organization. This event provided the single worst tragedy
in the history of sports broadcasting.
Olympics have also given television sports some of its most glorious
moments and endearing heroes. Few will ever forget the U.S. hockey
team's thrilling victory over the Soviets in 1980, Nadia Comenici's
perfect performances, or the dedication and perseverence of athletes
like Mark Spitz, Carl Lewis and Dan Janssen. Typically, the top
American athletes become media celebrities, winning lucrative endorsement
and commercial deals along with their medals.
from catapulting the athletes to media stardom, the Olympic games
are a ratings boon for their host network. Customarily, that network
captures 50% of the television audience each night for the two-and-a-half
weeks of the Olympic telecast. Furthermore, this habitual pattern
establishes a relationship between the viewers and the network which
translates into increased ratings for regularly scheduled programming.
This springboard into the new season, along with the hefty sums
commanded by Olympic advertising time are the reasons that the broadcast
rights are so sought after and so expensive.
Bruce Jenner at the 1976 Olympics
Photo courtesy of AP/ World Wide Photos
however, the situation has gotten out of control. For example, the
Squaw Valley games in 1960 cost CBS only $50,000 in rights fees.
Twenty years later, NBC bid an astonishing $87 million for the 1980
summer games in Moscow. This price was almost four times the fee
for the previous summer rights. Unfortunately for NBC, the U.S.
boycott of the games destroyed hopes of a windfall and sabotaged
the scheduled 150 hours of planned coverage. Still, rights fees
have continued to climb. The Summer broadcast rights almost tripled
from 1980 to 1984 ($87 million to $225 million) and both Winter
and Summer rights have gone for $300 million or more since 1988.
networks lose money on the Olympics. Bids are made knowing that
the result will be millions of dollars lost. The games have become
such an emotionally charged part of a network's inventory, however,
that profit is no longer the chief concern. Broadcasting the Olympics,
much like broadcasting professional sports, is more about network
prestige than about making sound business decisions.
These exploding costs have sent networks looking for alternative
strategies to ease the financial burden. In 1992, NBC made an ill-fated
attempt at utilizing pay-per-view subscriptions. The "Olympic Triplecast"
was organized in conjunction with Cablevision and intended to sell
packages of commercial-free, extensive programming. The plan was
a failure, mainly due to viewers' reluctance to pay to see some
events when network coverage of others was free of charge.
has had more success in reducing their outlay by joining forces
with TNT (Turner Network Television). The Winter Olympics of 1992
began the collaboration between the two networks which gave TNT
50 hours of programming in exchange for $50 million towards rights
fees. The arrangement was so successful that it was renewed in 1994
for the Lillehammer games. The sharing of broadcast duties and costs
seems to hold a promising future for both the quality and cost of
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Roone; Ohlmeyer, Don;