West Coast affils wary of live Olympics

Apr 9, 2001  •  Post A Comment

NBC wants its affiliates to carry all of its 2002 Winter Olympics coverage live, which would disrupt local news and other programming on stations in the Pacific time zone.
That’s what stations are expecting to hear when NBC executives meet with the network’s affiliate advisory board in Las Vegas on the eve of the National Association of Broadcasters show.
While NBC Sports spokesman Kevin Sullivan said final decisions have not been made, sources say that NBC has signaled that it will insist on live carriage on all dayparts and that representatives of the affiliates have had numerous conversations asking the network to reconsider.
Pacific time zone stations potentially have the most to lose because NBC will be packaging its coverage with the Eastern and Central time zone markets in mind.
“They’re in a very big dilemma,” said one source.
It’s a delicate issue for both sides, particularly since the network-affiliate relationship is at its all-time worst because of a war of words, lawsuits and petitions to the Federal Communications Commission over the ownership cap, which the networks want to see loosened or abolished, and other hot-button issues that stations say give the network too much control over what their affiliates carry and when they carry it.
Even at NBC, there is said to be differing opinions on whether to allow time-shifting in the West in so that the Olympics could play to maximum HUT levels and not displace local newscasts and syndicated material for most of the February sweeps. The sweeps are used to set ad rates for the following quarter.
With nearly 49 percent of the U.S. population in the Eastern time zone, NBC Sports will set its broadcast day to that clock, which would mean live coverage seen in prime time on the East Coast would begin in late afternoon, when HUT levels tend to be lower, on the West Coast.
In addition to moving local newscasts out of their usual spots, to the possible benefit of local competitors, it leaves stations with the question of what to do with their prime time after the Games coverage is over.
One scenario said to be under consideration is to fill the hole with local newscasts at 8 p.m., a live “Tonight Show” and an Olympics wrap-up.
NBC Sports, which is an equal partner with World Wrestling Federation Entertainment in the new XFL, forced affiliates to carry Saturday night XFL games live and “Saturday Night Live” in prime time but abandoned that “experiment” after two weeks because the “SNL” franchise was being cannibalized.
With the XFL floundering, NBA ratings slumping and negatives from last summer’s Sydney Olympics-which was roundly bashed because it was all tape-delayed and because it underperformed in the ratings-there’s a lot riding on the Games for the network, NBC Sports and Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol.
For some Pacific time zone stations, there’s no hesitation on the question of live or tape.
“I personally can’t imagine not carrying it live,” said George Lilly, president and CEO of SJL Communications, which owns NBC affiliate KSBY-TV in Santa Barbara, Calif. “It’s not a matter of money; it’s how you treat your viewers.”
To Mr. Lilly and some others, viewers are best served by seeing as many Olympic events as possible live-especially in the Internet age, when viewers can get sports results on demand.
“If they already know what’s happened, they’re not going to watch,” said one veteran of network Olympics.
“We think the Olympics are a good thing,” said Dan Evans Jr., vice president of public affairs for the Ackerley Group, whose stations include NBC affiliates in Bakersfield, Calif., and Anchorage, Alaska, where he dryly predicted an “avid” following because Alaska expects to have a rooting interest in a number of athletes and because “I believe it gets dark pretty early there.”
Others, however, point out that the Pacific time zone viewers-some 15.6 percent of the population-are used to seeing major events on a three-hour delay and that Pacific viewership outperformed the national average for the Sydney Games, which went into the record books as the lowest-rated since 1968.
Tom McGovern, director of sports marketing at OMD USA, said, “We look to NBC to make the right decision. The advertiser has the same vested interests as NBC … to maximize the ratings. People are not always psyched to see taped programming.”