By HAL BOCK -- Associated Press
OK, America, here are the choices.
-- The start of the college football season, shown live with sellout crowds for games in Tennessee and Ohio State, or taped Olympics from Sydney, Australia.
-- Deion Sanders patrolling Washington's secondary against Dallas, live on "Monday Night Football," or taped Olympics from Sydney, Australia.
-- Pennant race baseball and NFL football, or taped Olympics from Sydney, Australia.
NBC is betting a chunk of change -- about $705 million for rights alone -- that it can lure audiences away from the traditional attractions of a crowded, fall sports calendar to watch the Olympics on tape.
Richard Luker, founder of the ESPN-Chilton poll, believes it won't be easy.
"The Olympics is a flagship property, but the aspect of tape and timing is huge," he said. "They're hitting at the biggest time of the sports year and not during waking hours. People will know the results. And so much more is going on. There are so many more choices in the same amount of time.
"Last time, they were in the United States and they were promoted to the max. Now they're in Sydney, in the middle of the night. There's no buzz about this Olympics. We just don't seem to care. It's not the Summer Games. It's the Fall Games. You're right in the teeth of so many other things."
The last time NBC faced this situation was 1988 at Seoul, where the time difference forced much of the coverage to be taped. The network promised a 21.2 prime time rating to advertisers then but averaged just 17.9. That translated to nearly 3 million fewer households, creating advertising "make-goods" and cutting drastically into NBC's profit.
And that was in the pre-Internet environment, when every result wasn't merely a mouse click away.
Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports, said the network anticipated between 17.5 and 18.5 for Sydney after doing 21.6 for prime-time coverage of the 1996 Games at Atlanta. "An offshore games tends to be 15-20 percent lower than live, domestic games," he said.
Then, there is the issue of opposition programming.
On the first Saturday of the Olympics, more than 104,000 fans will jam Neyland Stadium in Knoxville for the Florida-Tennessee football game, to be shown on CBS. A week later, there will be some 95,000 fans at renovated Ohio Stadium in Columbus for the Penn State-Ohio State game, probably on ABC.
"The competition is tougher with pro football, prime-time fare, maybe some meaningful baseball pennant races," Ebersol said. "The Olympics appeal to an audience that is vastly different from the audience that turns to American sports."
NBC also faces the issue of attracting an audience to some obscure events. Folded in with track and dream team basketball are fencing and field hockey. For every gymnastics and swimming event there's also sailing and shooting.
There is plenty of time to show all of it. The network is offering 4411/2 hours of Olympic programming, well over double the 1711/2 hours it carried from Atlanta in 1996. Of the total, 279 hours will be carried on cable over MSNBC and CNBC and the remaining 1621/2 hours on the regular network.
"NBC does Olympics very well," said Ed Goren, executive producer of Fox Sports, which has a full roster of NFL and baseball during the games. "If they can create a passion with specific athletes, they can carry an audience because of emotional involvement. NBC will do an outstanding job creating personalities. Storytelling is what the Olympics is all about."
Because of the 15-hour time difference between Sydney and New York, all of NBC's Olympic programming will be on tape. "Our most important target is to reach the largest possible audience," Ebersol said. "To do that, all of the Olympics will be seen on tape."
That means results will be available elsewhere, well in advance of the telecasts. Goren thinks that might be a positive instead of a negative.
"We like to wave the flag, so it helps if Americans do well," Goren said. "If Americans are on the leaderboard and the events are over, we want to see how they won or how they were upset. So, the delay can work in their favor. It's delicate how you put the schedule together. There are a lot of variables on a taped Olympics."
NBC is being coy about its schedule. Some programmers believe the network will slot sports like gymnastics, which has a large female following, against traditional ratings winners like the NFL. So, it may come down to choosing between Deion and Dominique.
"There may be one or two really compelling events during the length of the games that may give us a run for our money," Ebersol said. "What we're looking for are event fans. It's why you get higher ratings for the Oscars and the Super Bowl."
Fred Fried, senior vice president for marketing of SFX Sports Group, a marketing and management company, thinks NBC won't have much to worry about because of the clout wielded by the Olympics.
"The American public will continue to embrace the Olympics," he said. "The brand is as strong as ever and NBC does a good job enhancing it. It may not be reflected in terms of ratings because we're in a new world. People will know the results. But you know what? That may make them want to watch.
"We may learn that September is a terrific time for the Olympics. Nobody's on vacation. Everybody's home, watching television. The NFL is just 11/2 days. College football is just one day. It seems like a long time since we had the Olympics.
"I like it!"
Brandon Steiner, who runs a sports collectibles business and arranges for athlete appearances, has not always been enthusiastic about the Olympics. He is this time.
"There's a wild card this time -- the women's World Cup soccer team," he said. "The excitement of that team gives this Olympics a little edge. We feel good about them, It moves the games away from the mainstream and brings in people like women."
"There are certain factors that will hurt the ratings," said Peter Stern, founder of Strategic Sports Group, a sports marketing company,. "We live in a more fragmented media environment. The timing will be a factor. There are formidable entertainment options. There will be some viewers who choose those options. NFL football is a tough competitor, a ratings monster. Being able to click on and find out the results of the 100-meter dash before it's shown will hurt.
"The Olympics still offer compelling stories that are still unique and still have a lot of value. There is always a U.S. hockey team or a Nadia Comeneci."
Ebersol has his fingers crossed but Fox's Goren thinks all the confidence is well-founded.
"Dick doesn't need anybody to throw a benefit for NBC," he said. "It will be a spectacular setting. The same natural beauty exists in Sydney that NBC had at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. They'll be fine."