NBC holds line on Olympic time

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Two weeks before the start of the Athens Olympics, NBC has about $50 million, or about 5%, of Olympics advertising inventory still to sell-yet it's holding firm on pricing.

Media buyers said buzz-killing reports about incomplete facilities in Greece, unsold tickets, terrorism and doping have dampened demand for last-minute Olympics commercials.

"The people that wanted it bought it," said Donna Speciale, president-U.S. broadcast at Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest. "If you have to be on-air during those two weeks, then you want to be on the Olympics, because the viewing will be for the Olympics vs. the other programming. But if you don't have to be on-air, people aren't going to buy it just for the sake of being there."

a moneymaker

Buyers said NBC representatives are calling around seeking Olympics dollars. "They're definitely been doing a lot of inquiring. But they don't want to look like they're panicking. They don't want to break their pricing structure," one said. "They can't afford to cut prices, because then they'd have to go back to their other advertisers and renegotiate those deals," said another ad buyer.

Even if NBC doesn't sell out, it is expected to make money on Athens. The network came out of the Sydney Games more than $50 million in the black.

In all, NBC has said it expects to sell $1 billion in Olympics advertising. It is airing Olympics coverage on six of the networks it owns: NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, Telemundo, Bravo and (the most recent addition) USA Network. It is also making a high-definition feed of Olympics events available over its affiliates' digital channels. That's created a huge amount of Olympics advertising to sell.

`relatively cheap' cable

Spots aren't cheap. Prime-time slots on NBC cost $650,000 to $700,000; weekend daytime spots are $250,000 and late-night and weekday spots are $75,000. Spots on cable, by comparison, are "relatively cheap because there's so much tonnage there," a buyer said, with commercials selling for about $10,000 a unit.

During the upfront NBC offered buyers lower rates on the network's prime-time schedule in return for Olympics dollars, and that tactic generated as much $50 million. But at this point, another buyer said, few advertisers have $3 million to $5 million in their ad budgets to spend on Olympics packages.

An NBC Sports spokesman said the Olympics are now about 95% sold out. "As is typical, we will sell right up into the opening ceremonies," the spokesman said. NBC added a number of last-minute Olympics sponsors, including Choice Hotels, TIAA/CREF, Emerald Nuts and Expedia.com.

The Olympics is one of a few sporting events to offer ratings guarantees to sponsors. One ad buyer said its clients were guaranteed a prime-time household rating of 14.5. That's up from the average prime-time rating of 13.8 and a 24 share that NBC generated four years ago in Sydney, Australia. But the buyer said the number NBC offered was in line with the media buying agency's own internal estimates.

Jon Lafayette is a reporter at TelevisionWeek.

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