The political conflict that caused a U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics overshadowed those Games. However, in the months preceding the invasion, there was nothing to indicate that the U.S. team would not attend the Games. And the battle among the American networks to secure the broadcast rights was intense.
Rader (Rader, 1984: 117) noted that NBC “hung back” when the initial negotiations began, while CBS seemed intent on securing the rights. CBS and ABC began courting Soviet organizers as early as 1975, and both used non-sports programming as a means to that end. CBS sent Mary Tyler Moore to Moscow to host a special on the Bolshoi Ballet, while ABC sent its “AM America” crew to the Soviet capital for a week-long series of reports about life in the USSR (ibid). The New York Times
quoted the show’s anchor describing the reports as the “most ambitious” effort of any TV network to report about the Soviet Union and its people. However, the newspaper suggested that the network offered an unrealistic snapshot of the country and more egregiously had allowed Soviet officials to preview the programs before they had aired. The Times’
story concluded that ABC’s willingness to accommodate the Soviets was based solely on its hopes to become the broadcast home to the 1980 Summer Games (Whiteside, Nov. 23, 1975).
In the meantime, a West German, Lothar Bock, trusted by the Soviets because he had booked Russian entertainment acts in the West, started to assist CBS, which sent its chairman, William Paley, to Moscow to meet with the Olympic organizers. A series of encouraging conversations ensued, and CBS executives were convinced that they had the inside track to the television contract (Rader, 1984). However, when the Moscow OCOG decided to hold open bidding, which met with the IOC’s approval, CBS balked and refused to hold any further discussions with the Soviets or Bock. He then turned his attention to NBC, which welcomed his contacts with the Soviets. Rader (Rader, 1984: 118-119) concluded that “for $1 million plus a promise to buy fifteen programs produced by Bock, he delivered the Olympics to NBC.”
Rader’s statement, though accurate, omits the chronic confusion that continued until the end of the negotiations. NBC’s executives traveled to Moscow in late January 1977 and soon announced that they had reached a deal with the Soviets (Prial, 1977). However, knowing that representatives from ABC were heading to the Soviet Union to hold their own meetings with the Moscow OCOG, the Soviets said no such deal was in place (New York Times
, Feb. 1, 1977). One day later, the Soviets abruptly changed course, and acknowledged that they had reached agreement with NBC (Wren, 1977). An IOC official was dispatched to Moscow, where she quickly reviewed and approved the deal. Wenn (Wenn, 1998: 104) noted, “Killanin, forced to follow developments of the past month and a half via press reports, was relieved about the negotiations with NBC.” Considering that he was determined to improve the financial health of the IOC, Killanin perhaps saw the poor communications between Lausanne and Moscow as the final straw; it was time for him and the IOC to take a seat at the negotiating table instead of relying on the media to inform him about the discussions and deals that were providing the IOC its principal source of income.
Meanwhile, a New York Times
editorial (Feb. 3, 1977) suggested that all three U.S. networks had played a kind of cat-and-mouse game with the Soviets and lost. “[The] Soviets know how to stimulate a Pavlovian reaction in capitalist dogs; mere access to their Olympian auction was good for any number of hours of benign transmission about Russia on American screens. They also know a hungry network when they see one.”
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 drew an immediate and angry response from President Jimmy Carter, who became the leading player in the orchestration of a multi-nation boycott of the Moscow Olympics. Carter also enacted economic sanctions against the USSR, including preventing NBC from making its last scheduled payment to the Moscow OCOG (Farnsworth, 1980). That payment totaled more than $22 million (Barney et al, 2002). NBC announced in May that it would not televise the Summer Olympics. The New York Times
reported that the decision cost NBC “at least $22 million and perhaps more than $40 million in lost advertising revenues and expenses already incurred” (Schwartz, 1980). An NBC official estimated the losses would be less but nevertheless substantial: $15 million (Rothenberg, 1980). The Los Angeles Times
added that in the absence of most Western nations many journalists had decided to stay away from Moscow. Soviet officials said that more than 3,000 reporters were covering the Games; however, the newspaper noted that almost 8,000 had been expected before the boycott (Fisher, 1980). The Los Angeles Times
also quoted a Soviet television commentator, who during the opening ceremonies made a direct reference to the missing countries. “We are very sorry that the athletes of the boycotting countries have been deprived of the opportunity to participate,” he purportedly said. “It is too bad for the athletes that politics have interfered” (Shirley, 1980).
The Americans and approximately sixty other nations stayed away from Moscow. However, the British did not. They sent 222 athletes to the 1980 Games and won five gold and twenty-one total medals. Whannel examined television coverage from Britain and the Soviet Union during the Summer Games and found striking differences. He noted the “USSR wanted to present the Games as normal, unaffected by the boycott, better organized and more spectacular than ever. British television seemed at pains to mark the Games as abnormal, [and] to draw [its viewers’] attention to the absence of many nations” (Whannel, 1992: 36).
The 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games marked another turning point in the relationship between television and the Olympics. Wenn (Wenn, 1998) noted that this was the first year in which the IOC had joined with an OCOG to negotiate a television contract. However, it was not dealing with a traditionally structured organizing committee. Because of the refusal to fund the Olympics with government money, the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee (LAOOC) was not doing its job on behalf of the city; instead, it was acting as a private corporation. Over time, one of the effects of this unusual structuring was that it often acted without consulting the IOC. The process by which it finalized its television contracts provided one example of this independence and demonstrated why the IOC felt continually frustrated by the Los Angeles organizers.
In April 1979, five months before they completed negotiations, LAOOC officials required potential bidders to pay a refundable $500,000 fee. This provided guaranteed (and needed) money. The IOC’s ire was raised for three reasons: No previous OCOG had pursued such a strategy; no one in Lausanne had been told about it in advance; and, perhaps most galling, the LAOOC had no intention of sharing the money with the IOC. In September, a tentative deal was struck, and no IOC official played a significant role in the negotiations. In fact, in a near complete re-run from the 1980 Games, an IOC official was dispatched to southern California to review (and to approve) the deal. The OCOG structured a contract that it knew would appeal to the IOC because it required a $25 million payment to be sent to Lausanne before the end of the year (Barney et al, 2002).
ABC agreed to pay LAOOC almost $225 million for the television rights (Real, 1996). That figure was staggering for two reasons. First, never before had a network come close to paying that much for a single Olympic Games. Second, it meant that more than 43 percent of the LAOOC’s estimated $513 million budget would be generated through television. Never before had an OCOG put as many of its financial eggs in one basket. The New York Times
suggested that the return of the Summer Games to ABC “was something of a personal victory” for Arledge, who now was the president of ABC’s news and sports divisions (Lindsey, 1979).
The network spared no expense to make sure that its investment would be profitable. It scheduled 180 hours of coverage, the most ever for an Olympics, employed 3,500 people and 250 cameras, laid almost 660 miles of television cable, and planned to shoot more than 1,300 hours of athletic events (Mifflin, 1984). It was not enough, claimed Los Angeles Times
television critic Howard Rosenberg. He wondered if ABC, or any television network, could have captured the excitement and awe felt by the people sitting inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the site of the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as the track and field competitions. “TV shows us an event in sections, only what the director wants us to see. It mutes the impact” (Rosenberg, 1984). ABC also made sure that American athletes were highlighted, both for their athletic achievements and personal stories. New York Times
columnist Ira Berkow chastised the network for taking so-called homerism to ridiculous heights (or depths, depending upon one’s opinion). “Of course, the televising of the Olympics . . . is entertainment,” Berkow wrote. “But bringing the inherent delights and beauty and drama and surprises of an athletic competition like the Olympics to the public can be accomplished with straight and sensitive reporting” (Berkow, 1984). A Swedish citizen who attended the Games claimed that both the print and broadcast media were guilty of overplaying the nationalism card. “To use a word that I hate,” Goran Gustafson wrote, “this is a form of athletic imperialism, made all the worse since it heightens that American tendency of being oblivious to the feelings and attitudes of allies” (Gustafson, 1984).
IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch sent a letter to Ueberroth, the president of the LAOOC, in which he noted that most of the nine-member IOC executive board was not happy with the network coverage because it threatened to diminish the “international flavor” of the Games (Morrison and Reich, 1984). “Many complaints have been transmitted to me regarding coverage by ABC of Olympic events,” Samaranch wrote. “The coverage should be of an international nature, particularly for the medal ceremonies. I therefore insist that you take the necessary action to have this situation rectified, as the Games belong to the whole world” (Reich and Sharbutt, 1984). ABC officials met with Samaranch and others from the IOC but refused to commit to making changes.
A London sportswriter believed he had an explanation for ABC’s coverage. “American television is terrible” (Allen, 1984). Nixon wrote that 1984 was merely the latest in a number of examples of a television network “playing to the chauvinistic feelings of viewers” and therefore adding “to the deeply entrenched tradition of nationalism” that had been part of the modern Games from their inception (Nixon, 1988: 246).
A network spokesperson’s statement perhaps encapsulated the differences between the values of television and the IOC. “Our responsibility is to put on a show for the American audience,” Tom Osenton argued. “That’s ABC’s prerogative, to shape a show” (Reich and Sharbutt, 1984). American viewers, whether oblivious or in response to the overt domestic boosterism, could not stop watching. ABC’s coverage earned almost a twenty-five rating and forty-four share; its competitors were dwarfed by comparison (Kaplan, 1984).
When the Games ended, the LAOOC reported that it had total revenues of more than $768 million; more than $286 million (37 percent) of that had come from international television agreements (de Moragas Spa et al, 1995). No OCOG had ever derived such a percentage of its money from television contracts. Moreover, it had hoped to generate $105 million from this source; it wound up with almost three times that amount.
Four years later, Seoul’s OCOG hoped to generate between $500 million and $600 million from its television deal with a U.S. broadcaster. However, the American networks balked, fearing a possible second Eastern bloc boycott, and the potential for terrorism, and recognizing the fourteen-hour time difference between South Korea and the United States (Larson and Park, 1993). The IOC addressed these concerns to the South Koreans, who, nevertheless, were surprised when, in 1985, the highest initial bid for the 1988 Summer Games came in at $325 million. IOC officials strongly suggested that the Koreans take the offer; they refused, knowing that it would not be considered acceptable in Seoul. The IOC’s pleadings should have been heeded; none of the networks engaged in a bidding war. NBC’s offer of $300 million matched CBS’ bid but was accepted because it offered $50 million up front and agreed to share any profits made through advertising (Barney, Wenn and Martyn, 2000).
The American newspapers also appeared disinterested in the deal. The New York Times
provided just one story about the agreement, and it focused heavily on aforementioned potential drawbacks of the Olympics in Seoul (Smith, 1985). During the Games, two themes dominated newspaper reporting of NBC’s coverage: The types of stories the network spotlighted and the low television ratings. The New York Times
(Chira, 1988) and the Los Angeles Times
(Harvey, 1988) noted that the host country was upset that NBC provided significant coverage of a boxing judge being attacked by several South Korean coaches, trainers, and others after one of their boxers lost a match, but it did not review the questionable judging associated with the bout. The same Los Angeles Times
’ article indicated that the South Koreans also were bothered by NBC’s decision to almost completely ignore the theft of an $860 mask from a Seoul hotel by three American athletes. The New York Times
chastised the network for offering “a tough portrait” of North Korea. “When you’re opening the Summer Olympics,” Gerald Eskenazi asked, “why bring the viewer up short with a piece on that country that isn’t participating [in the Olympics]” (Eskenazi, 1988).
Eskenazi wrote the first story concerning the low television ratings associated with the Seoul Olympics and the need for NBC to offer “make-goods” (free commercials) to their advertisers as a result of them. He compared the first week ratings of the 1988 Games to those from the 1984 Games and hinted that one reason for the lower numbers might be that American athletes were not dominating the competition as they had done in Los Angeles “because of the Soviet Union’s absence” (Eskenazi, 1988). Effective counter-programming by the other networks and the time difference between South Korea and the United States were other reasons that helped to explain why NBC’s ratings were 4.5 percentage points below what advertisers had been promised. Later, Eskenazi (Eskenazi, 1988) reminded his readers that NBC was still generating the highest television numbers during the Olympics of any network; it simply was getting fewer viewers than expected.
As mentioned, while the coverage of the business of the IOC has increased over time, there has been no shortage of scholarly discussion about the positive and negative effects of the relationship between television and the Olympic Games. Whannel argued that as U.S. television networks have paid for the Olympics (through escalating rights fees) they have used their financial clout to influence how the Games are run, including determining “the nature of ceremonies, the choice of events and the timing of events” (Whannel, 1992: 71-72). It was in Seoul that the question of when events should be held became an international issue. Three IFs, athletics, swimming, and gymnastics, especially were opposed to any plans to move finals events to the morning (so that they could be seen in prime-time in the United States). However, a leading Seoul Olympic official noted that these (and other) sports had enjoyed continuous growth in popularity around the world, and television had played an important role in that growth. Therefore, it was his opinion that the Games’ schedule had to be designed so as to maximize their economic potential (Larson and Park, 1993). Put more bluntly, the events that people around the world wanted to watch had to be scheduled during those times that they could be seen.
TELEVISION AND THE OLYMPICS: CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
Beginning with the Seoul negotiations, the IOC finally achieved what it had sought for more than a decade: A powerful role in the talks surrounding television contracts. No longer would it stand by and let an OCOG take money out of its pocket. It also had been during the late 1970s and into the 1980s that the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) had taken the same position: No longer was it going to stand by and let the IOC and the OCOGs dip deeply into the rich U.S. financial pie. In the words of Barney and his colleagues, “It would not be until the era of sensational escalation of television rights fees in the 1970s and 1980s that USOC officials were aroused to seek their own independent share of the American revenue pot.” These authors noted that in prior years the USOC had been “mute” when it came to discussions about and involvement in the divvying up of money from television and commercial sponsorships (Barney, 2000: 50). This position led to a clash between the USOC and the IOC that would not be settled until the early 1990s.
The basis for the USOC’s argument that it deserved a greater share of the revenue generated from U.S. television contracts stemmed from the 1978 Amateur Sports Act, under which Congress, in part, gave it exclusive use of all Olympic emblems within the United States. IOC lawyers knew the USOC had a legitimate argument but believed that it also was being selfish because it had refused to share the profits from the Los Angeles Games with any other NOC. Nevertheless, a deal was reached in which the USOC received a $15 million payment for the 1988 Olympic year and 10 percent of the U.S. television deals in the future (ibid).
These pages have shown that neither the Soviet Union nor the United States involved themselves in the discussions about television money unless self-interest was at stake. The research of this author and others suggests that the Soviets paid little attention to and publicly said almost nothing about the increasing television revenues and the dilemmas associated with them, except when those discussions involved the 1980 Moscow Games. Perhaps the Soviets stayed quiet because they believed that their agenda to make the IOC a more political body could not be realized regardless of what route it took with television money. Put another way, the issue of television rights was not part of the Soviets’ political program, which included, among other items, the admission of an East German Olympic team and the expulsions of South Africa and Taiwan. The argument is weakened because of the aforementioned suggestions by Andrianov that the IOC should use some of its new wealth to revamp its office and become a greater force for social peace. In other words, the Soviet delegation actually might have seen television money as a means of furthering their political ends. Perhaps they remained mum because they agreed with Brundage that television’s values were inconsistent with those of the Olympic movement. On the surface, this appears to be an area that the Soviets could have exploited; they could have argued they (and their satellite states) were creating an athletic system in line with Coubertin’s vision for what sports should do for a populace, and the Western powers were seeking to undermine that vision through the commercialization of athletics. However, the mutual distrust between the Soviets and Brundage might have made it impossible for the former to say or do anything that would have enhanced the stature of the latter. Perhaps they remained silent because any talk about commercialism was incompatible with socialism. In other words, there was no way that Soviet Olympic officials could speak about something that was politically unpopular within the USSR.
Several explanations might account for why U.S. officials had little involvement in the developing issue of television rights fees and the Olympic movement. Perhaps the Amateur Sports Act finally gave them what they previously had lacked: The legal basis for a claim to a greater share of U.S. television money. Perhaps they said little because until the late 1970s there was not much of a television pot. The combination of these two factors also cannot be overlooked: The USOC gained its legal footing at almost the exact time that television rights fees exploded; the combined power of both issues opened the door for the call to keep more U.S. money at home. Another potential cause for the silence cannot be dismissed: It was during the 1970s that the dominance of American athletes at the Olympic Games began to wane, and Soviet and East German athletes began to be recognized as the world’s best. Perhaps American officials saw television dollars as a means to devote more money to their domestic Olympic effort, which might lead to the development of more Olympic champions.
Pablo Rodas, who presided over Paraguay’s National Olympic Committee in the 1990s, summed up the uneasy relationship between television networks and the IOC perhaps better than anyone else: “The marketing of television rights for the Games brought considerable financial benefits to Organizing Committees for Olympic Games, but it should not be forgotten that, however profitable, the granting of exclusive rights to a single television company left the Games vulnerable to the whims of the company concerned” (IOC, 1994, 360). Whannel (Whannel, 1992) added that as the influence of television upon the Olympic movement has increased, the ability of the IOC to define the nature of the Games has decreased.
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