When NBC outbid ABC for the rights to the 1980 Moscow Olympics in 1977, one NBC insider chuckled, "Roone Arledge [president of ABC News and Sports] is tasting the agony of defeat." Now NBC is itself facing the agony of default.
If President Carter's hasty threat to pull the United States out of the Olympics -- to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- is carried out, the network may have to change its slogan to "NBC -- Plucked As A Peacock."
NBC is investing more than $100 million in its planned Olympic spectacular, has already taken in $150 million in advertising from eager sponsors, and plans 152 1/2 hours of Olympic coverage -- 113 of them in prime time -- beginning Friday, July 18.
In addition, it is common industry wisdom that NBC president and chief executive officer Fred Silverman plans to use the Olympics on NBC just as he used them at ABC -- to promote heavily, probably to the point of excruciating excess, the network's line-up of fall shows. The loss of the Olympics certainly would put the kibosh on the strategy.
NBC spokesmen insist that the Olympics have by no means been lost yet, that insurance from Lloyds of London would cover 90 percent of the $87 million in payments made to the Russians, and that the network will not live or die on the strength of the Olympics anyway.
Naturally the word in broadcasting circles is that NBC is in a state of purest panic. "That's baloney -- it really is," says NBC Network president Robert E. Mulholland."As for using the Olympics to promote programs, Fred said six months ago that two weeks isn't going to make the season."
But weren't the Olympics pivotal in NBC's promotional plans for fall? "Well, the Olympics are certainly better to promote off of than not," says Mulholland, "but I'd go one step down, semantically, from 'pivotal'."
So much is at stake, however, in these preliminary matches of global media politics -- the games before The Games -- that there have been more serious charges about NBC behavior. ABC's Arledge notes for example, that a report this week on NBC Nightly News featured young athletes decrying the president's threat and expressing their disappointment, but there was no "balancing" word from the Administration.
"I'm not accusing them of anything at all," says Arledge. "But if we had ever done that I would never live it down. Being as involved as they are in the Olympics, I should think they would be very, very careful."
Paul W. Greenberg, executive producer of the nightly news says in response, "NBC doesn't tell us how to cover stories and NBC Sports doesn't tell us what to do, either."
Of the Arledge comment, Greenberg says, "I don't want to call anybody names. I have strong opinions about Roone but I won't say them. It's kind of sad. I think journalists should be above all that. We should be adults.
"That piece on the Olympics was about the human side of the problem. These kids have gone through agonizing procedures for years to get to the Olympics. God knows what they've done to their psychos and physiques and these are just about the tremendous emotional trauma they've gone through."
NBC vice president George Hoover calls the Arledge allegation "crazy" and says, "We've had all kinds of stories on the boycott with every possible side represented," including a debate on the "Today Show."
Then there's the statement in a wire-service today that NBC convened its Moscow broadcasting team and advised restraint in commenting on Soviet internal problems. Hoover says the meeting in question was held for NBC sports commentators prior to a Los Angeles press conference, and they were only asked not to comment on the corporate side of the story, since that was Mulholland's turf.
Meanwhile, Arledge, who has done more for sports on television than anyone else alive has his own perspective on the Moscow brouhaha. He thinks the show will go on. In fact he thinks the controversy may make it that much better a show when it does go on.
"My guess is that, like all flaps, this one is going to go away," Arledge says. "People who will accept all kinds of embargos and suspension of fishing rights and cut-offs of grain exports get all worked up like it's a holy war when you start talking about Olympic athletes. Somehow the public believes that stuff should be kept out of politics, as if it weren't political already.
"Unless something terrible happens in the world, I don't think there will be any mandate from the American people to support the president on this," says Arledge. "People regard the Olympics as a religious rite that must be protected at all costs. People see the Olympics as this great ideal that transcends nationalism. That has never, ever been the case, but that's how people see it."
And as a result, "the boycott threat may benefit NBC in a way because it will intensify the analogy with the Hitler Olympics, which were historic. The Moscow Olympics are historic already, but this will make the rivalry with the socialist countries all the more intense."
Arledge says the boycott talk may even help boost audiences for the Winter Olympics from Lake Placid, scheduled to begin Feb. 12 on ABC.
Mulholland is careful not to comment on the president's threat. He is asked if he has an opinion on the proposed boycott policy. "No, I really don't, at least not an opinion I would want to make public," Mulholland says. There is no behind-the-scenes maneuvering to try to influence the White House, he says. "It's not NBC's position to try to affect the situation. It's not our place. We're broadcasters guided by the decisions of the United States government."
Nor does Mulholland want to be drawn into speculation about hypothetical possibilities. One NBC spokesman was asked if by some wild chain of events Moscow lost the Olympics and they moved to another country -- as Vice President Mondale urged yesterday -- would NBC still have the rights to televise them? He answered, "Beats the hell out of me."
NBC may be insured against lost investments in Olympic coverage, but there is no insurance against lost profits. All commericial time sold to advertisers would have to be renegotiated at lower rates or canceled. But Mulholland denies published reports that without the Olympics, NBC is stuck with two empty weeks of no available programming.
"That's preposterous, as anyone who knows anything about the television business would know," Mulholland says. "Of course we have programming. Of course."
And here's another thing that's not true, Mulholland says: that NBC was going to leave millions of dollars worth of broadcast equipment behind in Moscow for those Russkies to use. In fact, a complicated routing switcher (master control panel) that began life in Tokyo and will be sent to Moscow for use at the games will eventually find its way to Burbank, where NBC plans to modernize its old studios.
It could be that the Russians have more to lose from a scrubbed Olympics -- or games with no U.S. participation and therefore no substantial U.S. coverage -- than even NBC does. As Arledge puts it, the games would give the soviets "an unparalleled opportunity to have the eyes and ears of the world for two weeks to show off Russian life."
The games can be seen as the latest step in the progress of cooperation between American private enterprise and the Soviets -- an appropriately clumsy step in a pratfallish progress. NBC, for example, announced in early 1973 the signing of "a wide-ranging, long-term agreement" with the USSR "calling for the exchange of television and radio programming as well as mutual cooperation in a number of broadcast-related activities."
It was suggested that soon American screens would be blossoming with imported cultural treats from Russia.
One year later, however, the rosy ballyhoo that surrounded the announcement was replaced with a chorus of so-whats. "It was just a little agreement, in case we need cooperation," sniffed Ioury V. Solton, then chief of the Washington bureau for Soviet TV and radio.
"Nobody ever expected a major development from that," said Thomas J. McManus, president of NBC International when the agreement was signed. "From the beginning we never had any major expectations. I'm not surprised that nothing has come of it."
Now that Newsweek has proclaimed the start of "The New Cold War," the detente that was called "irreversible" in 1974 by the Russians begins to look extremely fragile. That chummy decade of the '70s included an incident in which Soviet officials pulled the plug on correspondents from all three networks in Moscow when they attempted to report on the travails of a Soviet dissident.
In spite of all this, the official word at NBC is still "go." According to one Hollywood insider, among those most upset by the threat of a boycott are members of NABET, a technicians' union that reluctantly agreed to a new contract with NBC a few months ago only because everyone wanted to be eligible for the Moscow gig.
Mulholland does not confirm this story but says, "People are lined up at every door, engineers and otherwise -- everybody wants to go. It's not a company outing, however."
Mulholland will be there, though. "Fred's going, too."
That is, if anybody goes. There are discouraging omens all around, one of them reported on NBC Nightly News Tuesday: Russian troops took an NBC News team in Kabul into custody and held them for five hours because they had attempted to film Soviet troop movements there. The games go on. But The Games may not.