CBS glides to Olympian ad sales

NEW YORK — CBS Sports is nearly sold out of ad time on the Winter Olympics, which virtually will guarantee the web a February sweeps victory at a crucial moment in its bid for a primetime rebuild.

With 128 hours of scheduled coverage from Nagano, Japan, Feb. 6-22, the network has sold 98% of its available ad inventory for $530 million, and could reap as much as $20 million more from last-minute demand for remaining spots, said sales prexy Joe Abruzzese.

The network paid a $375 million rights fee to cover the games, and will spend another $100 million on production costs, although it is selling about 50 hours of additional weekday coverage to the TNT cable web.

Platform payoff

All told, CBS is expected to make a reasonable profit on the games, but the real return comes from bolstering its season, and helping local O&O stations.

“This is a real critical event for us that will let CBS continue the momentum we started in the fall,” said Sean McManus, CBS Sports prexy. Importantly, the sweeps success will allow the Eye web to promote launches for midseason series behind it, especially the new Tom Selleck sitcom from Warner Bros., tentatively titled “The Closer.”

Net guarantees

The network is guaranteeing advertisers an average 19.7 primetime rating for the Games, a full rating point ahead of the average for the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, but well short of 1994’s 27.8 in Lillehammer, when skater Tonya Harding arranged to do damage to rival Nancy Kerrigan’s kneecaps, sparking a flurry of interest and the Games’ highest ratings to date.

This year, CBS will cover snowboarding competition for the first time, enlisting former MTV veejay Kennedy as a commentator, and will also cover aerial and mogul skiing.

“We believe the audience will be bigger (than 1992) because of the higher overall viewing experience of the previous Olympics,” said David Poltrack, exec VP, research and planning. “We’re adding new, youth-oriented extreme sports, and focusing on building up that 18-to-34 viewership as well.”

Because of the 17-hour time difference between Japan and L.A. (14 hours to the Eastern time zone), all of CBS’ coverage on the West Coast will be taped. East Coast and Central timezone viewers will see live hockey in latenight, following “Late Show With David Letterman.” Opening ceremonies and downhill skiing on some nights also will air live in primetime.

The time difference “gives you live opportunity, which I guess is a big advantage,” said Rick Gentile, senior VP and exec producer for Olympics coverage. “The disadvantage is we have to hold certain sports longer than in the past,” essentially delaying coverage by nearly a day in some cases to accommodate the broadcast schedule.

In sales, CBS will carry about 20 30-second spots per hour in prime, with more in early-morning hours and fewer in latenight when events are covered live.

CBS strategy

The commercial load is roughly the same as in past years, but CBS is aping a strategy at NBC by selling larger ad packages to many fewer advertisers, 12 of whom have bought category exclusivity, a list that includes Visa, AT&T, Coca-Cola, IBM and Xerox. Rising ad demand also boosted ad rates, with some spots fetching $400,000, and CBS’ total is now 18% ahead of the $450 million in revenue collected from the 1994 games.

But this marks the Eye web’s last chance to reap Olympic gold, at least until 2010, when the first Olympics will air following the expiration of NBC’s long-term deal.

That fact “is not going to affect the sports division’s commitment to put money into (the broadcast),” McManus said, “but it will be a bittersweet moment when the last telecast goes off the air.”

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