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Olympic talks begin, climate a bit chilly

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Five years ago, when Bill Payne's drive to land the 1996 Summer Olympics for Atlanta seemed to be some kind of a joke, the real estate attorney predicted a $600-million pricetag for American TV rights. Now that's funny. As negotiations open in New York this week, Atlanta organizers and their partners from the International Olympic Committee face the task of pushing the rights above the $401 million NBC paid for Barcelona. But network officials have been making it very clear that the rights for the Atlanta Games would be considered part of the new (cheaper) network sports era.
CBS no longer carries Laurence Tisch's wallet into sports negotiations. ABC remains reluctant to pay loss-leader prices. And NBC, still bloodied from the disastrous Triplecast, vows to be more conservative. And then of course there is Turner Broadcasting's TNT, which could figure into any of three scenarios.
Said one network source, "If the Olympics people go in there thinking this is 1988, they're going to be very disappointed." Atlanta officials insist their event must be worth much more than Barcelona because it will be carried in the Eastern Time Zone. But even with an added 17th night of competition Olympic organizers have proposed--which they believe adds about $25 million in value to the package the likelihood of them reaching anywhere close to the $500 million they now seek seems remote. "Being live on the East Coast is worth only so much," says another network source.
The real question hanging over these negotiations is whether Atlanta and the IOC will buy into the networks' newest gimmick: revenue sharing. But Olympic officials appear reluctant to share the risk that they've always been able to pawn off on the networks. "We can't afford to gamble," said Payne. "We have a $1.6 billion event to pay for."
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