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Tuesday, August 22, 2000
Internet Olympics loom with TV coverage tape-delayed

By HOWARD FENDRICH -- Associated Press

 After the ballyhooed faceoff between Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene at the U.S. Olympic track trials fizzled, Johnson declared he was done with the 200 meters even though he owns the world record.

 Johnson didn't say so on TV or in a newspaper.

 No, the world learned about it the way more and more people are getting their news: the Internet.

 Johnson, a regular contributor to NBCOlympics.com, told only that site of plans to leave behind the 200.

 Next month, when 15 time zones and the lure of prime-time advertising dollars conspire to push TV coverage of the Sydney Olympics on to tape exclusively -- NBC will air events 12-15 hours after they conclude -- the World Wide Web will be the fastest way for many Americans to find out who won what.

 "This is the first full-blown Internet games, especially with the time delay being what it is. Two years ago, sports Web sites and the Internet in general were not what they are now," says Joe Ferreira, VP of programming and executive producer at CBS.SportsLine.com.

 A Pew Research Center report released in June showed that since 1998, the number of people getting news from TV declined 8 percent, while the number getting news online jumped 10 percent.

 NBC is wagering $705 million in rights fees -- $249 million more than was paid for any previous Olympics -- plus about $100 million in production costs that knowing the results won't prevent people from tuning in.

 "The Olympics are made up of sports that do not have a substantial following in the United States. If you put gymnastics, swimming and diving, or track and field at any time on American network television outside the two weeks of the Olympics, it would be beyond a miracle to do a 3 or 4 rating. Suddenly you put it on in the Olympics and it's a 20 rating," NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol says.

 "The results of the Olympics are not what truly matter to the vast majority of the audience. They're interested in the story."

 With that mantra in mind, as always, NBC will fill chunks of its 1621/2 hours (cable channels MSNBC and CNBC have another 279 hours, including repeat broadcasts of events already aired on tape) with storytelling -- features about athletes, events and locales.

 What most people won't get from the Web are the sights and sounds of competition.

 ESPN.com will have athletes' diaries, FoxSports.com will post explanations of each sport's rules, and CBS.SportsLine.com is planning chats with athletes and detailed information on the venues.

 But only NBCOlympics.com, a partnership between the network and Web company Quokka Sports, can show competition video. And that will be limited to 20 minutes daily, embargoed until after the footage is shown on NBC, and available only to 4 million or so U.S. households with high-speed Internet access (there are about 100 million TV homes).

 The International Olympic Committee is enlisting computer experts to scour the Web for unauthorized material, including video, audio and sequential photos.

 "We entered into fairly long-term television agreements well before the Internet developed into what it has now," IOC vice president Dick Pound says.

 "If the traditional television audience is migrating to the Internet, we need to protect our rights holders. In the future, there's probably not much question that there will be either joint television and Internet rights or those rights sold separately."

 The IOC will strip accreditations and pursue legal action against violators.

 "It's still the wild wild West out there in a lot of ways, especially internationally," Ferreira said. "The IOC is going to be having a lot of fun keeping track of their international broadcast partners and the Internet. It's a daunting task."

 There are also distractions that could diminish NBC's prime-time viewership from the Sept. 15 opening ceremony to the Oct. 1 closing ceremony.

 These could be called the Autumn Olympics.

 There are NFL games ("Monday Night Football" has Dallas-Washington on Sept. 18, Jacksonville-Indianapolis on Sept. 25); baseball pennant races (the playoffs open Oct. 3); and key college football matchups (No. 9 Florida at No. 12 Tennessee on Sept. 16, No. 4 Wisconsin at No. 6 Michigan on Sept. 30).

 There also will be political coverage ahead of the presidential election.

 Nielsen Media Research, which measures TV viewership, agreed to start the new television season later than normal because of the Olympics. Most new episodes of TV series won't air before Oct. 2, eliminating some competition for NBC. Traditionally, networks roll out new shows in mid-September.

 "The competition is tougher with pro football, prime-time fare, maybe some meaningful baseball pennant races," says Ebersol, who negotiated the deals that give NBC the Olympics through 2008 for about $3.5 billion. "But I never look at (the games) as having a particularly tough road to hoe against other sports.

 "The Olympics appeal to an audience that is vastly different from the audience that turns to American sports."

 Sydney will generate ratings from 17.5 to 18.5, Ebersol says, knowing what happened the last time the Summer Olympics were this late in the calendar.

 The 1988 Seoul Games, which ended Oct. 2, resulted in a ratings disaster for NBC, which mixed live with taped coverage from a city that has a 14-hour time difference from the East Coast.

 NBC's Seoul telecasts averaged a 17.9 rating -- roughly the percentage of TVs tuning in nightly -- well off the 21.2 the network had promised advertisers, and the 21.6 the network got four years ago in Atlanta.

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