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NBC's Olympic TV Dynasty Challenged In Rights Bidding

The Olympic flag will fly again in 2014 and 2016, but where U.S. viewers will find the games on television is up for bids this week.
The Olympic flag will fly again in 2014 and 2016, but where U.S. viewers will find the games on television is up for bids this week.

The International Olympic Committee is listening to pitches and accepting bids Monday and Tuesday for exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympics in the United States.

American broadcast rights are the single biggest revenue generator for the IOC and the bidding underway in Lausanne, Switzerland, has ABC/ESPN and Fox challenging NBC for its lock on the 10 most recent summer and winter games.

The IOC is hoping for a deal totaling more than $4 billion for four Olympics, beginning with the Sochi, Russia, Winter Games in 2014. That would be the biggest TV rights deal ever.

NBC's hold on the American television broadcast rights would normally make it the favorite but Dick Ebersol, the long-time NBC Olympics producer and head of NBC Sports, recently left the network in a contract dispute.

NBC also has a new owner stepping into Olympic competition for the first time and the new bosses at Comcast may be unhappy about the fact the network lost more than $200 million in its broadcast of the Vancouver Olympics last year. Similar losses are expected in next year's summer games in London.

"Ebersol had an approach to Olympic bidding that resonated with the IOC," says Olympics writer Tripp Mickle in an analysis of the contest in Sports Business Daily. "He always bid big, so big that he beat his closest competitors (Fox) by more than $700M last time. With him out of the picture, is Comcast willing to go big?"

Fox and ABC/ESPN are in the bidding again and both have promised more live coverage of Olympic competition. My colleague Linda Holmes has an interesting look at which of the bidders might provide the best coverage in her Monkey See blog today.

NBC has at least one possible edge in the bidding, besides its legacy as the American broadcast franchise for the games. NBC Sports Vice President Alex Gilady is a sitting member of the IOC, representing Israel. Gilady sat on the IOC Radio and Television Commission ten years before he was named an IOC member in 1994. He still sits on that commission.

Gilady was involved in Olympic TV deals in the past, according to a story in Sports Illustrated in 1995. Writer Sally Jenkins refers to Gilady's role when NBC landed five consecutive Olympic broadcast deals, from 2000 through 2008. The American rights for the Athens, Torino and Beijing games went to NBC in a process that involved no other bidders.

"Sealing the Olympic deals was a team effort, with crucial input from [General Electric Chairman Jack] Welch, as well as from [NBC CEO Bob] Wright and a pair of NBC executives, Randy Falco and Alex Gilady, an Israeli who is also an IOC member," Jenkins wrote.

But the IOC insists that Gilady is not involved in the broadcast rights bidding in Lausanne this week.

"He has had no part whatsoever in the negotiations, either formal or informal," writes IOC spokesman Mark Adams in an e-mail to NPR.

Behind closed doors, an IOC negotiating team heard from Fox Monday. NBC and ABC/ESPN make their pitches Tuesday. All three networks then submit sealed bids.

The bids could seek deals for the next two Olympics up for grabs, Sochi in 2014 and the 2016 summer games in Rio de Janeiro. The IOC prefers to include the 2018 and 2020 games, as well, which have no host cities yet.

The IOC will then decide which network gets exclusive American broadcast rights. The negotiators may also decide that no bid is satisfactory and announce that the bidding will continue.

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