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Will Olympic flame ignite NBC?
NBC Universal aims for "halo effect" from around-the-clock Athens coverage on 7 channels.
August 13, 2004: 5:58 AM EDT
By Krysten Crawford, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - NBC Universal, the New York-based General Electric unit that owns Olympics broadcast rights, will flood viewers with live sports and tales of against-the-odds quests for gold medal over the next 19 days.

In all, plans call for a record 1,210 hours of 24/7 coverage. That's nearly three times the hours broadcast during the 2000 Sydney games and more than seven times the air time dedicated to the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

On top of the NBC television network, viewers can witness the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat on six NBC Universal cable channels, including Bravo, USA Network, MSNBC and the Spanish-language Telemundo.

On the face of it, the blanket coverage sounds excessive. Ratings were a disappointment at Sydney. What makes NBC Universal think the bleary-eyed masses will tune in to table tennis at 5:00 a.m.?

Turns out, it may not matter if they do or don't.

Nothing to lose....

Media watchers say there's little downside to the company's around-the-clock play. In addition to the profits NBC Universal will reap from its coverage, it hopes to jumpstart NBC's new fall primetime lineup where it's dominant in the lucrative 18- to 49-year old audience that advertisers covet.

NBC will fight to keep silver in ratings.  
NBC will fight to keep silver in ratings.

"The Olympics are one of the top television events," said Brad Adgate, vice president of corporate research at Horizon Media, a New York brand marketing firm. Adgate estimates that more than 90 percent of viewers tune in to the Olympics at some point.

NBC Universal bought for $5.7 billion the exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympics beginning with Sydney in 2000 and ending with the 2012 summer games. The eye-popping bet has so far paid off.

NBC Universal is looking at Athens profits of about $50 million on $1 billion in ad sales and sponsorships. Those estimates fall short of Sydney's $60 million haul and the record $75 million reaped from Salt Lake City winter games two years ago.

In Sydney four years ago, the peacock network did run into some ratings trouble--and there's no guarantee the same problem won't arise in Athens. Viewer numbers from the Australia games disappointed, forcing NBC to make good on its promised ratings by giving advertisers additional air time later.

Most of the advertising dollars have been spent on NBC, with some package deals that include slots on NBC Universal's cable channels. The company hopes that reducing primetime coverage on its NBC network from five to four hours a night will eliminate the risk of another ratings mishap.

But should NBC's ratings falter again, the company can placate advertisers with extra air time on cable, said independent media analyst Jack Myers. "There's really no downside."

....but everything to gain?

NBC Universal can't lose. The question is whether it can win -- and how much.

The media giant is not the same company it was even two years ago. Since its last Olympics broadcast in 2002, NBC Universal has acquired Bravo, Telemundo and USA. The company itself didn't exist until General Electric (GE: down $0.59 to $31.61, Research, Estimates) bought a majority stake in the Universal entertainment assets of French utility Vivendi and merged them this spring with its existing NBC operations to form NBC Universal.

With all the increased television hours at their disposal, the top brass at NBC Universal saw the Athens Olympics as a golden opportunity to promote all things NBC and boost ratings at all or some of the seven networks.

"The reason we're doing this, quite frankly, is because we can," said Cameron Blanchard, senior communications director of NBC Sports and Olympics. "There's no better promotional vehicle than 17 days of Olympics."

NBC cable scorecard: 2 up, 2 down.  
NBC cable scorecard: 2 up, 2 down.

NBC Universal's cable outlook is mixed. Viewers numbers are up at MSNBC and Bravo over time, but they've dropped at USA and CNBC, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The bigger concern for NBC Universal is the broadcast network. NBC, the No. 2 primetime network behind Viacom's CBS is heading into next month's season premiers handicapped by the loss of "Friends" and, to a lesser extent, "Frasier."

Network rivals smell an opportunity to lure adult viewers away from NBC, which ranks No. 1 in the 18-49 year-old group. To hold onto that prized audience, NBC needs a strong primetime launch. Viewers can expect relentless and shameless self-promotion throughout the Athens games. NBC Universal has also moved its primetime season forward to late August in the hopes of capturing Olympics-sated viewers.

It works in NBC Universal's favor too that rival networks ABC, owned by the Walt Disney Company, and CBS all but concede defeat in the ratings wars during the Olympics broadcast.


Can the coming weeks give NBC Universal the ratings boost it needs after the Olympic flame goes out?

Maybe for a week or two, media analysts agree. But no matter how many tear-jerking stories come out of the Olympics or medals the U.S. takes home, only quality shows can drive ratings.

This isn't news to NBC Universal.

"This is an experiment," said Blanchard. "Financially this isn't costing us more. We believe there's only an upside."

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