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Millions could be deprived of Olympic soccer because of NBC-cable dispute.

By Robert Wagman

(Saturday, August 19, 2000) -- Millions of cable viewers may be deprived of seeing the United Statesí men's and women's soccer teams in action in this summerís Olympics in a dispute between NBC television and some of the nation's largest cable systems.

NBC paid billions for the exclusive rights to Olympic coverage in the U.S. Long ago, it announced that the network would broadcast only the "major" sports -- e.g. track & field, gymnastics, swimming -- then highlight packages of the lesser sports. The entire competitions of the so-called "lesser" sports will be carried on NBC-owned cable channels: CNBC and MSNBC.

The plan for soccer is to show all matches on one of the two cable channels. All that will be on the full network will be highlight segments.

The NBC network will have about 62.5 hours of coverage with the two cable channnels carrying an additional 279 hours of Olympics programming. Almost all will be on a tape-delay basis because of the up to 15-hour time difference between Australia venues and American Eastern Time.

Actually, it's even more complicated than that. NBC plans to offer two simultaneous feeds during the day: its regular financial news CNBC and MSNBC programming, and then a separate feed of the Olympics which NBC is calling "supplemental coverage." An individual local cable operator will have the choice of showing one or the two feeds on the channels currently reserved for CNBC and MSNBC, or of showing both feeds by using additional channels.

NBC is charging cable operators a $1 per subscriber for the extra deeds, but for large cable systems that adds up to millions of dollars and some are balking at paying. If they do not pay, they don't get the coverage and soccer fans in markets they serve will not be seeing the Olympic matches.

Actually, it's more than just the $1 dollar fee. NBC is really playing hardball, demanding that cable operators who get the Olympics sign new contracts agreeing to carry both CNBC and MSNBC, and the Olympic supplements through the 2008 Games at a much higher subscriber cost. Currently cable operators are paying about 18 cents per subscriber per month for the two. In addition, cable operators have to agree to carry NBC's version of the Home Shopping Network -- the ValueVision Network -- and a new financial channel, CNBC2.

Currently some very major cable operators are saying no. Comcast, Cablevision, CableOne and the National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC) are still holding out. They are represented in such markets as New York, Cleveland, Boston and Phoenix.

For an idea of the potential cost, the package would cost CableOne about $ 740,000 a year. Tom Might, chairman of Cable One in Phoenix, told a trade paper, "It's just too much money for two weeks of programming out of the year." But he said he is still negotiating.

For Comcast, the surcharge could reach $64 million by the end of NBC's eight-year Olympics package. Other of the cable operators say there problem is they have no available channel for ValueVision, and are angered that NBC is trying to shoehorn it on the air using the Olympics as bait.

"What does ValueVision have to do with the Olympics?" one cable executive asked. "When you look at the average license fees and throw in these other things, it's just too much. Comcast and Cablevision are refusing to pay, but also they don't think MSNBC and CNBC should be carrying sports."

David Zaslav, president of NBC Cable, says he is confident that he'll have deals covering all 80 million cable households by the time the Olympics kick off on September 13.

Another NBC spokesman told SoccerTimes: "We are really pleased that, with 30 days left to go before the Olympics, more than 90 percent of cable operators, and virtually every other technology distributor, have signed up for the package of NBC services, which include CNBC, MSNBC, CNBC2, ValueVision and the five Olympics. We don't see the surcharge as a premium; we see it as a package."

A spokeswoman at Comcast said only that the system is still negotiating with NBC. The others also say they are still negotiating. So, stay tuned.

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman can be e-mailed at
bob wagman@soccertimes.com.

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