Comcast Must Court Olympics, Part of NBC's Legacy

When Comcast was considering purchasing NBC Universal, one of its advisors urged the cabler only to do the deal if it would embrace the future of broadcast TV. That guru, News Corp. COO Peter Chernin, said he told Comcast head Brian Roberts to only spend the billions if you can "fall in love" with NBC.

Thus, Comcast will spend whatever it takes to keep the Olympics on NBC when bidding for the 2014 and 2016 Games kicks off next year. ESPN may force it to pay more, but Comcast will top ESPN's bid on every round as the International Olympic Committee considers each side's latest offers.

For Brian Roberts, love means having to take a loss. A new report from Bernstein Research indicates the Olympics will again be a money loser in 2012, though possibly break even beyond. No one said love is cheap.

Comcast's Steve Burke will become the CEO of NBCU when the cable company gains control. While Burke's an aggressive leader, he'll tread lightly when it comes to the NBC network. There will be a laser focus on upgrading prime time, but he'll be careful not to upset the apple cart with other moves.

Burke may upend parts of SyFy's business or try something funky with USA and VOD, but unnerving NBC affiliates or network employees early on would be a mistake. Particularly after Comcast took pains to mollify the affiliates' concerns about the company's takeover in order to gain their support.

One of Comcast's commitments was not to move big-time sports events to cable. There's no better way to prove it then keeping Michael Phelps-like magic on NBC.

Had NBCU remained under General Electric with its current management, it may have been able to take a pass on the Olympics if the price for rights grew too high. Not this time. Maybe when bidding in 2017.

Keeping the Olympics is also paramount because the Games have become an intrinsic part of the NBC brand - the network relishes placing the rings on the bottom right of the screen attached to the Peacock. Even if prime time continues to stumble, the great stories that emerge every two years provide a morale boost.

When the U.S. played Canada in the epic gold medal hockey game in February at the Vancouver Games, it was hard for people up and down the NBC ecosystem not to be ecstatic. Forget about the ratings, the excitement and amazement had the public buzzing for days, and the highlights all had the NBC logo.

For years, NBC's Olympics leader Dick Ebersol was fiercely protective of the value of NBC's huge investment to gain Olympic rights. Despite persistent doubts, the network insisted the games were money makers. One argument: if NBC itself lost cash, the owned-and-operated stations made so much, it was a profit center.

But that changed this year; General Electric warned investors that NBCU would take a loss in Vancouver. The Bernstein Research report pegs the loss at $223 million. Further, it predicts a lesser $100 million loss as NBCU carries the 2012 London Summer Games, which carry an estimated $1.2 billion in rights fees. Bernstein does predict if NBCU has the 2014 Winter Games it will break even, since rights fees will be less than they were for Vancouver.

Comcast does have one thing going for it as it battles ESPN for rights in 2014 and 2016. (It's hard to believe News Corp. or a CBS/Time Warner combo will be much of a player.) At some point, ESPN may realize the Olympics aren't a good fit. The consistently top-rated Olympic events appeal to women, a group not in the ESPN wheelhouse.

Of course, much of the appetizing swimming and gymnastics would likely be placed on ESPN sibling ABC. But with ABC getting a golden prime time spot, the value of the Games to ESPN -- which would be spending most if not all of the money -- is questionable.

The Olympics could still fill the unending hours ESPN has on its networks. Also, the Olympics could help ESPN grab higher affiliate fees, but those are on an inexorable rise regardless.

As ESPN executive John Skipper has said, ESPN was unlikely to spend its billions for rights to both the NCAA basketball tournament -- which went to CBS and Turner -- and the Olympics. March Madness would have been a better fit.

Comcast can't go searching for one.

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1 comment about "Comcast Must Court Olympics, Part of NBC's Legacy ".
  1. Anne kissel Elliot from ET Consulting , December 15, 2010 at 2:17 p.m.

    David, Interesting points - but you might want to chat with the folks at ABC-TV about this. ABC proudly touted "The Olympic Traditon Continues" for years as the home of the Olympics. One might argue that ABC created Olympic coverage as we have come to know it under the genuinely genius guidance of ABC Sports President Roone Arledge and Broadcast Operations & Engineering President Julie Barnathan. "Up Close & Personal" and snazzy little cameras offering new views were nurtured by ABC and used for classic Olympic stories including the tragedy in Munich of 1972 and the Miracle on Ice of 1980 and the unprecedented coverage of Los Angeles in 1984. ABC owned the Olympics. That is, until Capital Cities, headed by Tom Murphy & Dan Burke - yes, Steve's father, bought the network in the mid-1980s. While Capital Cities didn't hold back on the one Olympiad to which ABC was committed, Calgary in 1988, the Olympic Tradition Ended quickly under their watch with no fanfare. If Steve Burke and Comcast don't find a compelling business case for committing billions of dollars for rights and production everyone at NBC will learn to live without those rings, just as their ABC counterparts did. And all that pride and enthusiasm and excitement will quickly fade to black.