Brian Roberts

Olympic TV: the time is now


Based in Los Angeles, KIIS-FM — OMG, Ryan Seacrest, he hosts the talent show American Idol, too! — is a pop culture powerhouse that unabashedly plays a loop of hit songs its teenage listeners want to hear, over and again. This summer, as I know well, what with three teens in the house (disclaimer: the oldest turned 20 in April), one of those songs is Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda.” If you are not in the know, let us just say that “Anaconda” is salacious. My 15-year-old daughter, who is a straight-A student and gives her parents zero problems, knows all the words. These include rhymes and riffs that veer from Eiffel to Nyquil to others that are for sure not printable in a family newspaper. The video, with Minaj and a posse of backup dancers twerking and then twerking some more, makes the whole thing all too clear.

When I was 15, Karen Carpenter was making big hits.

Times change.

OBS  chief executive Yiannis Exarchos

Which leads — yes, it does — to the prospect of an Olympic TV channel. To quote Karen Carpenter, we’ve only just begun. You don’t think so? Rewind to the Sochi 2014 opening ceremony. There was the Russian Police Choir covering Daft Punk’s dance floor anthem, “Get Lucky.”

The International Olympic Commitee — indeed, the entire Olympic movement — is trying to figure out how to reach the emerging demographic that is teenagers and 20-somethings.

There are two universal languages spoken around the world.

One is music.

The other is sports.

To be candid, the notion of an Olympic TV channel is an idea that should have come to fruition already.

Like many things in our world, however, this is one of those that is a matter of timing.

Five years ago, the idea of such a channel was floated by Comcast and the U.S. Olympic Committee but then abandoned weeks later when the IOC and NBC demurred.

That was then.

Now, Comcast has acquired NBC, and Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts — who, it should be said, was supportive of the 2009 concept — recently played a key role in the $7.65 billion deal that gives NBC the U.S. rights to the Olympics through 2032.

Now, Thomas Bach is the IOC president instead of Jacques Rogge, and Bach has signaled unequivocally that the idea of an Olympic channel is a priority. Indeed, of all the working groups in his “Agenda 2020” review and potential reform plan, the channel is the one working group that Bach himself is chairing.

The Agenda 2020 process is working toward an all-members session in Monaco in December. There, the channel — along with other items on the agenda — will come up for review.

It’s not a foregone conclusion that the members will approve the channel. Nothing in the IOC is ever such a thing.

But if ever the timing is right — it’s right, right now.

“You mention the example from five years ago and the example from the United States,” said Yiannis Exarchos, the chief executive officer of Olympic Broadcasting Services. “In the last five years, we have seen changes from a century.

“We have seen changes and movements that are really seismic,” he said, adding a moment later, “Everybody in the movement started realizing the importance of coming together under a powerful brand. It adds value to all the efforts, which has a proven record of providing a robust platform for the partners to grow.”

Timo Lumme, the managing director of IOC TV and marketing services, added, “An Olympic channel is not going to solve everything at a stroke. But what it does is put a marker down and put a destination down for what we stand for.

“It’s not just the notion of the Olympic Games — but the values and everything we stand for. And hopefully we can get in there and stretch the Olympic brand beyond the two weeks beyond the huge spike of the Games, and leverage that spike.”

This is it, exactly.

Since early indications are the channel is not about rights fees, there isn’t likely to be a problem with NBC, the BBC, CBC, CCTV or others.

Also, it is going to be— by design — a global entity. NBC, just to pick one, serves the terrestrial interests of U.S. viewers, and is in business to make money. The point of the channel is very different. It’s to enhance the Olympic brand — to make it a 365-day-a-year proposition.

If done right, the channel not only could but should boost the quality and level of corporate partnerships, potentially meaning revenue over the longer term.

But that is not the outset goal.

What is, is telling the Olympic story, Exarchos said: the thousands of hours of sporting excellence already on file in the archives along with promoting the values of friendship, excellence and respect; adopting healthier lifestyles; organizing community events in a sustainable way; social inclusiveness; and more.

“Obviously, we do not believe television should be didactic,” he said, adding, “It should be exciting, moving and engaging.”

He said planners see sports as the “core,” as the “human stories,” ones with “moral paradigms that carry emotions and so on,” adding, It’s a more fuller world we see [with] sports as the moving heart of it, the core of it.”

He also said that while there should be “reference to the big stars and the big stories in the Olympics,” as with “everything in broadcasting … you have to make things locally.” He said, “I strongly believe in the incorporation of locally produced programming so that it can become far more relevant.” While this is “complex,” he said, this factor “will be the key to its success.”

Assuming the members give the go-ahead in December, the channel is likely to get up and running as early as 2015.

Back to Nicki Minaj, and for this reason. At the end of “Anaconda,” she sings about other women she meets in clubs. She is dismissive — I am being gentle here — about these other women.

For those of you who might take offense to Minaj and her lyrics — I direct you to Led Zeppelin and “Whole Lotta Love,” which essentially covers some of the same ground, only 44 years prior. Now that song is considered “classic rock.”

But I digress.

What Minaj creates in her song is a world that teenagers want to be part of. She’s so cool that she shows up on TV with Ellen DeGeneres — host of this year’s Academy Awards, hello selfie shot, which was apparently good enough for the IOC at the Youth Games in Nanjing — and DeGeneres makes a parody video that reduces Minaj to hilarious laughter.

Teens aren’t old enough to go to clubs, at least — in many countries — not legally. But they yearn to be part of something bigger, something so intrinsically awesome that they say, I’m in.

This is what the Olympic Games are about.

This is where the Olympic channel comes in.

Because aside from the two weeks every two (or four) years, the movement is very good at ceding the spotlight to the likes of Nicki Minaj.

And while she has something to say, the movement does, too.

To be obvious, it needs somewhere to say it.

“We have an opportunity right now to build something,” Lumme said, Exarchos adding, referring to the prospect of an Olympic channel, “In today’s day, it would be hard to do it in any way other than this.”


NBC's $4.38 billion knockout punch

There's an old maxim in boxing. If you want to beat the champ, you have to knock him out. That's pretty much the way it was always going to play out when it came to the contest for the U.S. broadcast rights for the coming editions of the Olympic Games, which the International Olympic Committee on Tuesday awarded to NBC -- a $4.38 billion deal that stretches through the 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020 Games.

Fox was in the game. The ESPN/ABC combination was, too.

Even so, NBC, which has televised every Summer Olympics in the United States since 1988, every Winter Games since 2002, was always the favorite, despite the resignation May 19 of Dick Ebersol. This process was always bigger than one man, no matter how towering a figure.

Eight years ago, the last time this process played out, NBC agreed to pay $2 billion for the rights to the 2010 and 2012 Games. A General Electric sponsorship bumped the full package up to $2.2 billion. That time around, Fox bid $1.3 billion. ESPN offered to share revenues with the IOC but never specified dollar figures.

This time, NBC swung the knockout punch -- again.

ESPN opted to bid only for the 2014 and 2016 Games. According to Associated Press and Sports Business Daily, it offered $1.4 billion.

Fox put in a bid for 2014/16 and, as well, for 2018/20. Its two-Games bid was $1.5 billion, its four-Games bid $3.4 billion, AP and SBD reported.

NBC went big, for four Games and $4.38 billion.

What else did you expect?

As IOC president Jacques Rogge put it in a news conference Tuesday, referring to NBC, "I can say really that the Olympics are in their DNA."

The IOC, like any institution, has a comfort zone. With NBC, the IOC has enjoyed growth, prosperity and -- under Rogge's direction in particular -- financial security. While it might well have achieved those things in partnership with other networks, the fact is it is NBC that has been there through the ups, the downs, the Salt Lake scandal -- everything.

This deal anchors the IOC's finances through 2020. It figures to do the same for the U.S. Olympic Committee, which now gets 12.75 percent of the U.S. rights fee. The USOC and IOC are currently in active negotiations over the USOC's broadcast and marketing rights shares, Rogge saying the new NBC deal figures to be a "positive factor" in those talks.

Here are the numbers: NBC will pay $775 million for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia and $1.226 billion for the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.

It will pay $963 million for the 2018 Winter Games and $1.418 billion for the 2020 Summer Olympics. Neither the 2018 nor 2020 site has been decided. The IOC will pick the 2018 city on July 6. Three cities are in that 2018 race: Munich; Annecy, France; and Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The IOC still hopes to reach a separate extension of the GE sponsorship, officials said Tuesday.

The IOC's relationships with NBC, beyond Ebersol, run deep indeed.

To be clear: The IOC did not structure the process so that NBC could win. Hardly. The bids were what they were. The IOC didn't tell anyone what to offer.

Nonetheless: If it was the case that the process was delayed so that there could be signs of life amid the global economic downturn, wasn't it also patently obvious that the auction was pushed back so that the Comcast/NBC merger could be fully completed?

Wasn't it equally obvious when the IOC went around dropping hints that a four-Games package would be welcomed? All those hints came after NBC lost $223 million in Vancouver. A four-Games package clearly would enable bidders for the next package to amortize costs over a longer term.

Brian Roberts, the Comcast chairman, said in that same news conference that the longer term was "strategically important" and of "great value to us." He said Comcast expects to make money on the $4.38 billion deal, calling the company's position "very comfortable."

Roberts added, "We said all along we were going to take a disciplined approach were we would have a path to profitability. By having a longer term, we were able to come out and achieve that goal."

It's far too facile, meanwhile, to say that Tuesday's deal is only about the money. To know even the first thing about the IOC and its culture is to know that.

So what else?

The IOC is actively trying to engage with young people. It last year launched a Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. It has a lively Facebook site.

NBC's deal gives it the rights to television, tablets, mobile phones, broadband -- to every platform now known or to be conceived, as Mark Lazarus, the new chairman of the NBC Sports Group, put it in that same news conference. "That's part of the value for our new company, to bring the Games to more people across more platforms," he said.

For years, the knock on NBC was that it held the good stuff back and showed it only in prime-time.

Fox and ESPN made clear they would show events live. But everyone knew NBC would be doing so, too -- that was one of the main benefits of the Comcast merger. Before, NBC had to rely on prime-time advertising sales. Now there would be considerably less financial pressure because of the added revenue stream from cable sub-fees.

Starting in 2014, Lazarus said, NBC would make every event available live, on one platform or another. Of course, the best stuff presumably will be shown again, in prime-time. Prime-time still draws families together before the big screen; that remains one of the main lures for sponsors.

Beyond that, what the Olympics are about -- what makes them different from every other property -- is story-telling. That's what Roone Arledge understood at ABC, when the Olympics first became a television event in the United States, when screens showed only black-and-white grainy pictures.

Story-telling is Ebersol's passion.

That passion has been passed on to the NBC team. It's the DNA thing Rogge talked of. It was at the core of the message delivered Tuesday to the IOC in a presentation that included Bob Costas and that, by all accounts, was simply first-rate.

"We were blown away by the presentation," Richard Carrion, the IOC's lead negotiator, said. "The passion [the NBC team] had for the Olympic Games was very impressive and very evident to all of us. They know -- they have been doing this for quite a while. We knew that they know what this is about. They know the values that are important to all of us. It was a combination of all those things.

"… We are happy to renew it."