Put this high on your list of TV surprises for 1988: NBC last week bid a record $401 million to secure U.S. television rights to the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
Go figure. NBC barely made back its investment in the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul. With the continued growth of cable television and continued fragmentation of the national television audience, it's tough to understand how they're going to justify an additional $100 million for Olympic coverage that, because of time zone differences, will allow only video-taped reports in prime time.Of course, NBC has already indicated that they will sublet a portion of their rights to a cable company - probably ESPN or TBS. That could be a boon to viewers, who will probably have more opportunities to see more events than ever before. But it will also serve to dilute network viewership, opening the alternative viewing floodgates just a little wider.
Almost as surprising as NBC's multi-megabucks purchase, however, is the seeming abdication of ABC as network television's Olympic King. Now that CBS and NBC have locked up the rights to 1992's Winter and Summer Games, respectively, ABC will be Olympic-less for the first time since 1960. Frugal Cap Cities bit the bullet on the Calgary Games, but the financial bath they took up north made them hesitant to make too large of a commitment to future Olympic coverage.
And poor CBS, which was hoping the prestige of capturing rights to both 1992 Olympiads would help boost them out of the third place funk they've fallen into, thought the cheap $243 million they paid for the Winter Games in France meant the Summer Games would also be available at a bargain basement price. But when top-rated NBC dug into its deep pockets to break the $400 million barrier, CBS found itself out of its economic league.
So the network that has been for decades the very definition of Olympic Games coverage seems now to have forgotten how to spell the words. And the network that already has all the money looks like its the only one that can really afford to take the risks you need to take to make more.