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IOC Stalls Rights Talks

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The International Olympic Committee is continuing to delay the start of negotiations for U.S. television rights for the 2014 Winter Games and 2016 Summer Games, which are now not expected to begin until late 2010 or early 2011—three years after some of the networks had originally expressed interest in submitting bids.

The IOC has pointed to the weak economy, which could inhibit plans to get an increase over the $2.2 billion NBC paid in 2003 for the 2010 and 2012 Games, as the reason for the delay.

The delay in holding off the bidding is also seen by some as an advantage to incumbent rights holder NBC, which has its production, advertising and marketing infrastructure already in place. Moreover, delaying talks will give Comcast time to get its acquisition of NBC Universal approved by the government and give NBC more financial stability than it currently has.

Officials at the other broadcast and cable networks said they believe that if the IOC had started negotiations sooner, the playing field would have been more level.

“It is a benefit to know the cities where the Games will be held (2014 in Sochi, Russia and 2016 in Buenos Aires), but it’s potentially a negative as it gets too close to the start date. It just makes all the preparation more challenging,” said an executive at one of the networks expected to bid on the rights and who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

While NBC acknowledged losing $223 million on its telecast of the 2010 Winter Games from Vancouver, at least one of its competitors opined that if the economy was better, there was a chance that the network could have broken even or actually turned a small profit.

While Fox submitted a bid for the 2010 and 2012 Games that was said to be about $700 million less than NBC’s winning bid, and with ESPN also bidding several hundred million lower for those years, NBC is expected to be the favorite, given the fact that the IOC is delaying to ensure a higher bid.

While, the IOC is also expecting bids from CBS and Turner, ESPN and sister broadcast network ABC have the most platforms to amortize a hefty bid that could rival NBC’s. But one insider at ESPN told Mediaweek, “Our goal is not to win at all cost. We don’t want to submit a bid and lose hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Execs at NBC, Fox, CBS, Turner and ESPN declined official comment. The IOC did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Sports consultant Neal Pilson, former CBS Sports president who served as a consultant to the IOC during its 2003 U.S. TV rights negotiations, said there could be a distinct differentiating factor if the final bidding comes down to ESPN/ABC vs. NBC/Comcast.

Pilson pointed out that ESPN evp of content John Skipper has stated a desire to televise the games live from Russia despite the seven-hour time difference. Meanwhile, Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBCU Sports & Olympics, has indicated that NBC would continue to show some of the Games live and some taped for prime time.

“That is a significant difference in philosophy,” Pilson said, and one, he added, that could impact the IOC’s final decision, particularly because he doesn’t think that any network, including NBC, will make “a preemptive, over-the-top bid this time around.”