The Russians like Lothar P. Bock because, he says, he is such a loyal fellow and proved it by going bankrupt trying to promote Soviet musical ensembles in Western Europe at the same time in 1968 that Moscow's armies were invading Czechoslovakia to crush the liberal regime there.
"I remember a day in Hamburg," Bock said this week, relaxing in his luxurious three-room $150-a-day suite at a special hotel for visitors the Soviets want most to please, "We had the ballet from Soviet Georgia, sensational sabre dancers. There were 85-90 people on stage, more than there were in the audience.
"Nobody in Europe wanted to come and watch performers from the Soviet Union. It was a five-month tour and really, I lost a great deal of money."
Money is not a problem for Bock any longer. NBC has paid the 38-year-old West German "empresario," as he calls himself, a fee of $1 million plus an additional bankroll of undisclosed size for his services in arranging exclusive American broadcast rights to the 1980 Olympics for the network. NBC is also promising to buy three Bock-produced entertainment and sports programs for each of the next five years.
For an ex-airline ticket salesman, who still operates with a staff of only about 10 people including his wife a bungalow and has an office in the basement on an unpaved street in a Munich suburb, this is the very big time.
"The Olympics is the biggest event in the history of television," Bock exclaims in a high-pitched voice that is boyish in its enthusiasm, "it is probably the biggest event of the century. One hundred and fifth hours of broadcast time. Unbelievable!" And from all accounts, Lothar P. Bock was instrumental in landing the deal, which is going to cost the National Broadcasting Company about $85 million, more than three times what ABC paid for the Montreal games.
How did he do it?
In the aftermath of the scramble which had American television executive rushing around for months trying to outsmart the Russinas and each other, Bock is being portrayed in industry gossip as something of a fixer. He has been called the mystery man of the negotiations and there are tales of how he peddled influence to the highest bidder and greased the skids for his eager client, which for about two years was CBS and then when that network pulled out in January, NBC. The image is sleazy, even a little sinister.
But much of the sniping is probably unfair. The fact is that Bock can reasonably claim to be one of a handful of western businessmen who has developed cachet with the Russians in bargaining over a period of years. "This is a Communist country, I knew that 12 years ago when I came here for the first time. But ideology is not my concern," he explains, "I see this as strictly business. I tell the Russians all the time that I am a capitalist and the reason I do business here is because I like to make money. They respect that."
His pragmatic attitude is much like that of Armand Hammer of Occidental Petroleum who has been shutting in and out of Moscow since Lenin's day. Donald kendall of Pepsico, who says that "Jewish interests" "organized labor" and other "adversary" groups have blocked the flowering of U.S. Soviet trade, and Ara Oztemel, whose Soviet-American Trading Corporation (SATRA thought at one stage that it had garnered the Olympic rights.
Bock clearly hasn't got the financial clout of these outfits, even SATRA, but what he has done is pick out the stuff the Soviets like to show off most - the Moscow State Circus, ice skating stars, the Bolshoi Ballet - and packaged those features into television specials.
"I saw from the outset that you can do a lot good business with the Russians if you work at it," he said, "if you are a rock music producer, then of course this is the wrong country, but if you want to produce good entertainment for the cultural market, there's a lot to be done."
Raising himself slightly in the crushed velveteen hotel armchair, he added, "I think of myself as a little Sol Hurok" - a tribute of the late American who pioneered appearances in the West by legendary Russian musical ensembles and performers.
Last winter after two years of baggling with the Russians, Bock rented the splendid Bolshoi Theater, something he insists no foreigner has ever done before, and invited every diplomat and party appratchik in Moscow for a "gala" taping of the Prokoviev ballet of "Romeo and Juliet." The program, introduced by Mary Tyler Moore, was shown on CBS and was a ratings flop, but Bock says the tape was eventually sold to 116 countries. That was swell for the Russians who merely had to spruce up the scenery in a production that had been in the repertoire for 30 years and then let Bock do the rest.
"Lothat," said another West German in Moscow who has known him for years, "is a good card for the Soviets. He has been hanging around for a long time and went through the bad years in 1968-69. He may not be the smartest man in the world but he makes good bargains with them and he gives big dinners with lots of vodka toasts. They like all that and it helps him."
For all the networks' savvy in other areas, they had little experience in serious negotiations with the Soviets and came into the bargaining expecting the worst: exorbitant money demands, unreasonable payment terms, insistence that Kremlin propaganda be part of the broadcast package. The Russians recognized the American wariness, and as they always do in such cases, went on the defensive. The mood was sour.
The Russians, said ABC Sports president Roone Arledge at a particular tense moment last December (in a comment he later repeated for Sports Illustrated) "want us to be like three scorpions fighting in a bottle; when its over two will be dead and the winner will be exhausted."
With greater experience in dealing with the Soviets and somewhat less at stake, Bock's attitude - or so he claims - was less tense. He concentrated on the mechanics of getting meetings organized, assuring the right appointments and putting the best possible gloss on messages from bothe sides so that the picture never looked too grim.
When the networks walked out of the talks in December and saidthey were going home to explore the possibility of a pool arrangement, Bock stayed behind. "I had a contract with CBS for the Olympic negotiations," he said, "but I was not a CBS employe. So I didn't leave Moscow. I decided that I'd worked a long time with this country and I wasn't going to run out on it now. That is not my style."
What happened over the next few weeks is about as byzantine as any situation can get. There are rumors that Bock secretly went on pushing CBS bid, although he was no supposed to as long as the pool arrangement was being considered by the Justice Department. He denies that and maintains he was told unnamed agents were making overtures on behllf of the other networks.
There was also SATRA's announcement that it has an agreement - which the Soviets subsequently described as merely a letter of intent.
In late January, CBS got fed up with the whole proceeding and pulled out. "They could have had it," Bock says, choosing his words very carefully so as not to offend a former client and possible future customer. Overnight Bock went to work for NBC and within a week the deal was struck in Moscow. Bock has his million dollars plus all the perks of success.
Bock grew up in Munich after World War II, went to business school and then worked as a sales agent for Scandinavian Airways before venturing, as he puts it with a soft German accent, into "the show business." He produced a few variety acts and a Passion Play that he took to Japan.
In 1965 Bock wrote to the Soviets offering his services as an empresario in Western Europe and says he got back an answer in Russian from Gosconcert, the state concert artists agency. "I don't read Russian so I just assumed it was an invitation to come to Moscow. I bought a ticket and went with a tourist visa. When I got to Gosconcert they told me that the letter said I shouldn't bother to come. We had a nice talk anyway and when the director was next in Germany he called me. That is how the contracts started."
About 18 months later Bock brought his first group to the West - a balalaika troupe - and, he says, was doing nicely when the disaster of Czechoslovakia struck. "I wanted to say goodbye empresario business then," he recalls, "its just too risky. You have to make arrangements months before, hotels, halls, buses, ticket sales. A representative from Gosconcert came to Munich and said how they wanted to carry on. They asked me to be agent for other big countries, Canada and England."
Yes, but did the Soviets produce any cash to help him out of the financial mess, Bock is asked?
"Unfortunately not," he says, "I had to slowly recover my own losses. With the Russians, friends is friends but business is business."