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By Published on .

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Several years ago, it looked like the bribery scandal might make life difficult for NBC sales executives
Photo: AP..
NBC's Bob Wright: 'Slower than we would like.'
offering ad time on the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games. Now, NBC has an additional hurdle on its path to gold: the economy.

NBC President Bob Wright said ad sales for NBC's coverage of the Olympics have been squeezed by the slowing economy. NBC has sold about 70% of its inventory 10 months before the Games begin Feb. 8, he told AdAge.com.

"We have quite a bit more to go," he said. "It's slower than we would like. There's no question about that."

Besides the economy, Salt Lake City poses other challenges for NBC because of the scandal associated with the city's drive to host the Games and the lackluster ratings from last year's Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. But ratings should go up because the Games will be in the U.S., allowing the network to benefit from patriotism and live telecasts of high-profile events such as figure skating, Mr. Wright said.

"It's an American Olympics," Mr. Wright said. "That's a big asset."

Ad revenue and the economy
Mr. Wright delivered his comments at the annual TV industry event, The Big Picture, in New York. Mr. Wright and other TV executives discussed the current economic situation's impact on ad revenue. But there was optimism -- perhaps only wishful thinking -- that spending might pick up later this year.

"I believe the major national advertisers, in order to maintain market share, will have to start spending aggressively," said Peter Chernin, News Corp.'s president and chief operating officer, who added that his company has maintained

Photo: AP..
Viacom's Mel Karmazin: 'They're going to continue to make a lot of money.'
its recent hiring freeze. News Corp. operates the Fox network, cable channels and other ad outlets.

Viacom President and Chief Operating Officer Mel Karmazin, considered to be more bullish on the economic outlook than others, said overcoming market swings has been done before.

"I've been through four recessions," he said. "An awful lot of people have made an awful lot of money in the media business, and they're going to continue to make a lot of money in the media business."

He later said: "I believe the fourth quarter [this year] and '02 are going to be good."

Viacom operates CBS and cable networks such as MTV and Nickelodeon.

TiVo and advertising
In a panel discussion, Mr. Wright also addressed the impact of TiVo technology on advertising because the recording devices allow viewers to bypass commercials. He said NBC, which is an investor in TiVo, has found that "people don't spend an awful lot of time" avoiding the ads.

But, he said, if TiVo and similar devices become popular, they might lead to a further blurring of the line between editorial content and advertising.

"If it really gets to the point where people don't want to watch commercials, then all we have to do is incorporate advertising into the program material," he said, referring to product placement and other options.

Other executives such as Turner Broadcasting System Chairman and CEO Jamie Kellner and A&E Television Networks President and CEO Nick Davatzes said TiVo posed a significant threat to ad revenue streams.

Benefit from Hollywood strike?
The executives also discussed the impact the impending strike by actors and writers would have on the industry. AOL Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin said his company still hopes to avoid the strike, but that AOL is well-positioned if the strike ensues because of its online and cable broadcasting businesses.

Some media executives believe a strike could benefit the cable networks if viewers turn to cable for its steady stream of news, sports, movies and re-runs. A strike would leave broadcast networks, on the other hand, with little original programming. AOL's Turner division operates CNN, TNT and Cartoon Network, among other networks.

Mr. Levin also said he will retire when he is satisfied that the newly merged company is properly integrated and operating at a satisfactory level. "You won't have to carry me out," he said. AOL Chairman Steve Case said he wouldn't assume the CEO role when Mr. Levin departs, but expects to remain in his role.

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