NBC and cable partner stumble in the bid for Olympic gold

THE OLYMPIC flame is being extinguished too soon for NBC, the US television network, and its cable TV partner Cablevision Systems. They are facing losses estimated at more than dollars 100m ( pounds 53m) on their Barcelona coverage after their pay-per- view package attracted far fewer viewers than projected.

NBC, a subsidiary of General Electric, paid dollars 401m for the exclusive rights to broadcast the games in the US. In addition to selling advertising on its regular network, it entered a joint venture with Cablevision to boost revenue through a 'TripleCast', offering viewers three channels of continuous Olympic action.

The company had hoped that 2-3 million subscribers would pay dollars 125 each for the two-week package, but this proved wildly optimistic. Cable industry estimates point to a figure closer to 250,000, leaving Cablevision and NBC each nursing losses of around dollars 50m. NBC has not disclosed the financial details of the venture.

The TripleCast has tried to make up lost ground by reducing weekday coverage from a day rate of dollars 29.95 to dollars 19.95. As the final weekend approached, NBC was hoping for a last- minute rush for a package costing dollars 29.95 for both days. Television viewers have been bombarded with advertisements about the new low price and exhorted to pay up and 'see what you've been missing'. But most viewers have been content to keep on missing it.

Part of the problem is the time difference. With Spain six hours ahead of the eastern time zone, many sports fans have either been asleep or at work during the TripleCast live coverage between 5am and 5pm. This has been replayed from 5pm to 5am, but most people have preferred to tune in for free to the regular NBC network programmes running each weekday from 7am to 10am and 7.30pm to 2am.

These programmes have drawn larger-than-expected audiences - well above the minimum levels NBC guaranteed advertisers. At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, soft viewing figures forced NBC to give away millions of dollars in free advertisements to make up the shortfall on its guaranteed viewing levels.

Analysts point out that since NBC is using the audiences to promote its autumn programme schedule, it also stands to benefit indirectly from the high audience figures, although it pre- sold all the advertising at prices one Wall Street analyst describes as 'a steal'.

As for the TripleCast itself, coverage on its Red, White and Blue channels has been well received by viewers and TV critics.

The relatively raw footage, with events followed at length uninterrupted by advertisements, is in sharp contrast to the highly packaged network shows with their constant plugs for sponsors, pop music promotions and syrupy features on athletes and their families.

Since most sports fans have not been persuaded to pay up, however, the scheme has been something of a setback for pay- per-view sports coverage, which until now has concentrated on big boxing fights. But some analysts believe pay-per-view will be back for the Atlanta Games in 1996.

'It has helped the spread of pay-per-view technology,' said Joe Rutledge, a spokesman for NBC. 'This is a ground-breaking venture and it was certainly ahead of its time in many respects, but I think it will help propel more such offerings in the future.'

(Photograph omitted)