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Published: Wednesday, 6/25/2008

NBC has bundle on Games, but who will watch?

Our Web site, toledoblade.com, had an interesting online poll question a couple days ago. The results were even more interesting.

The question: "How much Summer Olympics coverage do you expect to watch on TV?"

The answer: More than 60 percent of the 1,201 respondents said they either "won't watch," or will view "very little."

The precise breakdown was 34 percent for "very little," 26.1 percent for "won't watch," 25.7 percent for "some" viewing, and 14.2 percent for "quite a bit."

Now, this isn't exactly a scientific poll. This could be some guy named Lars from Greenland, where there are like 113 television sets and where there is a general indifference to the Summer Olympics, voting 1,201 times.

Or, it could be 1,201 folks from various parts of the globe, wherever the Internet is available, making their opinion known.

Scientific or not, it can't be good news for NBC. The network spent $894 million for the U.S. rights to televise the '08 Summer Olympics from Beijing this August.

That's the same NBC that became the first Olympics network to lose the February sweeps ratings in the most important demographic (adults, age 18 to 49) when it televised the '06 Winter Games from northern Italy.

And it's the same NBC that already has committed more than $2 billion for U.S. rights to the 2010 and 2012 Olympic Games, wherever they may be held.

The network needs to sell high-priced commercial time to offset such an expense and who can predict where the economy, already pretty much in the dumper, will be two or four years from now. Putting a certain amount of viewer indifference on top of that is a recipe for disaster.

The Blade used to regularly dispatch a staff writer or columnist to the Olympic Games, pretty much regardless of destination or expense. Those of us left behind would typically grouse about our department's travel budget being shot for the year to cover an event about which few would actually have any interest in reading. The Olympics, after all, have always been a TV event, at least since the first rights fee was paid.

If it ceases to be viable TV programming, then what is its future?

As for its past, when Coroebus became the first recorded Olympic champion in 776 B.C. it's doubtful anyone worried too much about revenues. (By the way, there was only one event back then, a 600-foot race. Coroebus, a baker and cook by trade, reportedly ran the event nude. Now that might have bumped the ratings, at least in the adult female, age 18 to 49, demographic).

Today, the Olympics are all about money - from site selection to site preparation to training athletes to media coverage. A friend who works for a newspaper in another city is one of three staffers going to Beijing at a cost of nearly $70,000. That's a big nut in a struggling industry; an example, perhaps, of throwing good money after bad.

But it pales in comparison to NBC's outlay. The network will televise about 1,200 hours from Beijing, including programming farmed out to its cable partners. And, for the first time in the U.S., the network's Olympic Web site will offer more than 2,000 hours of live streaming video online. All for $894 million, plus huge staffing expenses.

NBC had best hope it was Lars from Greenland who was submitting all those "won't watch" or "very little" votes.



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