OLYMPICS TV PROSPECTS SPIN UPWARD

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CBS for two weeks has been skating around the question of which of two Olympic promotional spots to air.

Both feature top women figure skaters, including Nancy Kerrigan. One spot includes Tonya Harding; the other does not.

Last week, the network decided to put both on ice.

The decision, CBS claims, was made not out of any concern that the network might be perceived as exploiting the drama of Ms. Harding's alleged

role in the attack on Ms. Kerrigan.

Rather, CBS said it decided it didn't need to promote figure skating, now virtually guaranteed a Super Bowl-level rating from the off-the-rink drama surrounding the sport's two U.S. stars.

Instead, the network will use valuable Olympics promotional time to build regular programming brands, including news, "Late Show With David Letterman" and three new prime-time shows-among them the Tom Arnold series, "Tom," set to join the network's post-games schedule.

"We no longer have a need to promote the women's skating competition," said CBS Senior VP-Marketing and Communications George Schweitzer, who acknowledged the network did debate the seemliness of running the spots.

"This thing is building on its own," Mr. Schweitzer said. "Every newspaper and TV station in the country is talking about the Olympics and showing figure skating. Goodness knows where this thing will end up by Saturday, when the torch is lit."

Indeed, as of last week, CBS' tracking research showed an incredible surge in viewer interest in the 1994 Winter Games compared with 1992.

"At this point, about 80% of the people we survey say they plan to watch the Olympics. At this point in 1992, it was about 75%," said David Poltrack, CBS senior VP-research and planning.

He said research found that 21% of viewers plan to watch all 16 nights vs. 18% who said so at the same point in 1992.

But most significantly, Mr. Poltrack said about 35% of viewers "definitely" plan to watch the women's figure skating competition.

Mr. Poltrack said CBS did not measure interest in figure skating two years ago but that the response is an "extraordinarily high number" because people were asked to describe their interest on a five-point scale with "definitely" being highest.

"At this point in time, we think we could break a 19 rating average" in prime time, he said. A rating point is a percentage of all TV households in the U.S.

That's good news for CBS, which guaranteed Olympics advertisers an 18.6 Nielsen rating in prime time. Further, he said there is reason to believe marketers could get an especially high bonus around the figure skating finals.

"In 1992, we had a 25 rating on the women's finals. We think that we can do a 30-plus rating if everything plays out right," Mr. Poltrack said. "But obviously, if Tonya Harding isn't skating and Nancy Kerrigan is not in contention at the finals, that would have an impact on the ratings."

While he could not estimate the dollar equivalent of CBS' Olympic promotion time, Mr. Schweitzer said the main beneficiaries would be CBS News, "Letterman" and the three new series being introduced after the games.

"CBS News will launch a new campaign for `The CBS Evening News.' It will be the first promotion in the Games on Saturday night, and it will be our largest `Evening News' campaign ever," he said.

"Letterman" will also get a heavy rotation of promotion spots that have their own wacky Olympics feel to them.

"Letterman," news and "60 Minutes" are the only regularly scheduled programming that will air during the two weeks of the Games, and CBS executives are hopeful that the promotion and the Olympics lead-ins will boost "Letterman's" coverage and ratings well over its already astounding start.

Through the fourth quarter of 1993, "Letterman" averaged a 5.6 rating, a 93% increase for CBS' late-night compared with the year-ago period.

Ad demand has followed: Prices for "Letterman" in the first quarter scatter market are said to have jumped 117% over upfront rates to $65,000 per 30-second unit.

As for the new series, in addition to "Tom," CBS will introduce "The Road Home" and "Traps," starring George C. Scott and Dan Cortese.

"Two days after the Olympics, we will have the Grammy Awards," Mr. Schweitzer said. "This is going to be a huge slingshot for us."

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