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CBS looks for ratings gold at Olympics


Despite the recession and a soft advertising market, CBS is very optimistic about bringing home the gold with its mammoth coverage of the Winter Olympics from Albertville, France, which started Saturday and runs for 16 days and nights.

"We're very excited about the event," said George Schweitzer, CBS senior vice president of marketing and communications. "We think our Olympic teams will perform extremely well and that will translate into more viewers for us."

Mr. Schweitzer said that "virtually" all the network's advertising spots have been sold. There had been reports that CBS would be left with some unsold spots. The network has 60 different advertisers lined up for the event, reportedly shelling out as much as $250,000 per 30-second spot during prime time.

CBS paid $243 million for the rights to cover the Winter Games, compared with the $309 million ABC shelled out for the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. ABC had 94 hours of coverage; CBS will have 116 hours.

Although ABC wound up averaging a hefty 19.3 rating FTC (percentage of sets in the U.S.) for its 1988 coverage, it ended up losing about $50 million and was forced to dole out so-called "make-goods," free time to advertisers on other programs.

Mr. Schweitzer would not comment on possible CBS losses, which some industry figures are predicting could also go as high as $50 million. "We don't comment on profit, loss or revenue," said Mr. Schweitzer. "But, one thing is certain: We will not need to take a write-off against the Olympics, as we did for Major League Baseball." At that time, CBS, had to write off "several hundreds of millions of dollars."

Mr. Schweitzer said CBS has guaranteed Olympics advertisers a 17 rating in prime time. That's about four rating points higher, about 25 percent, than CBS' current prime-time average. "We feel very comfortable with that figure," said Mr. Schweitzer. "It's a very realistic goal and we don't contemplate having to go through any make-good situation."

In addition to the rights cash outlay, CBS is also spending an estimated $100 million in production and associated expenses.

CBS is recouping some of its investment with the sale for $50 million of afternoon-only coverage (1-6 p.m.) to cable's TNT, for the next two Olympics. CBS also has the rights to the 1994 Games from Norway, for which it is paying $300 million.

With a six-hour time difference for the Albertville Games, CBS plans live coverage each morning (7-9 a.m.); taped coverage each night (8-11), a wrap-up nightly at 11:30 and live coverage on weekends.

Only one regular CBS series is not being pre-empted: "60 Minutes" will be seen in its usual Sunday 7 p.m. hour.

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