In television, today's outlandish talk often becomes tomorrow's reality. Today, Group W Satellite Communications President Harlan Rosenzweig is saying he would like to discuss with NBC the possibility of purchasing the rights to lesser Summer Olympic events in 1988 for a group of regional cable sports networks. NBC and industry observers say it is something that almost certainly will not happen.
But tomorrow, which probably means 1992 or 1996 -- although 1988 is not entirely out of the question yet -- Rosenzweig's scenario could unfold as the TV industry continues its inexorable shift toward pay and cable services.
Rosenzweig's idea -- to show such minor events as canoeing, water polo or bicycling on cable during nonprime-time viewing periods -- would enable NBC to recover some of its $300 million-plus rights fees and could help promote the network's major Olympic programming.
"It would take one of the great compromises of all time for it to happen in '88," Rosenzweig said. "You have to convince a whole lot of people that it's consistent with their interests -- the networks, their affiliates, the Olympic people, sponsors, cable operators, the American audience. It's a real long shot for '88."
Although NBC would gain money and promotion, its affiliates might balk at losing exclusivity and viewers to cable.
"We won't go beyond NBC and our affiliates," NBC Sports President Arthur Watson told the Kagan TV Sports Seminar in New York earlier this month. "Our prime concern is exclusivity."
"They're not talking with us," Mike Eskridge, NBC's Olympics executive vice president, said of Rosenzweig's proposal. "There's not very much we have thought of we can do that wouldn't fly in the faces of our affiliates. The prospects for an '88 deal are dim."
But Eskridge did not rule out the possibility that NBC might listen to an overwhelming financial offer for something as minor as water polo. "If there were a scenario like that," he said, "we'd take advantage of it, you can be damn sure of that. But we haven't talked to our affiliate-relations committee yet."
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for ABC Sports, which reportedly is having major difficulties selling advertising for the 1988 Winter Olympics, said the network does not plan to resell any rights to cable. The most logical depository would be ESPN (which is owned by Capital Cities/ABC), but a spokesperson for the cable network said that "although we've always had an interest in carrying part of the Olympics, we have no plans to do so in 1988."
The attempt by Group W Satellite Communications, which is the parent company of Home Team Sports, to get Olympics programming is not without precedent. In 1984, HTS wanted to carry some Summer Olympics qualifying events being held in the Washington area, but ABC replied in the negative.
If nothing else, Rosenzweig's talk of striking an Olympics deal with NBC in 1988 is his way of planting the seed of thought for such a transaction down the road. As cable expands to more viewers and the networks make clear they are unwilling to keep paying escalating rights fees for sporting events, the likelihood of a shift to cable broadcasts increases.
"If you asked me today if I can afford the Redskins or the Olympics, of course I'd say no," said Bill Aber, HTS general manager. "But that's okay. But once we go past that magic line and become revenue-generating, we'll become viable contenders for some of the prime stuff.
"Sure, I can't compete with ABC now, but that doesn't mean I won't be able to tomorrow."
Home Team Sports announced it has renegotiated its multiyear contracts to carry Bullets, Capitals and Orioles games. Aber said the new contracts "go through 1993 or thereabouts."
"The contracts have been successfully renegotiated at levels that reflect HTS' modest gain in its subscriber base and reflect a much more realistic potential of HTS' growth," Rosenzweig said.
"When we first sat down in 1983, everyone understood that cable is a less than precise industry in predicting the future," Aber said. "All of the major parties said, 'Look, we'll start it, let it operate for a reasonable amount of time and we understand that there's a lot that we don't understand.' It would have been foolish, in one fell swoop, to say we could wrap things up for the next 10 years [with having the option to renegotiate]."
Financial arrangements were not disclosed. Court documents in last year's Abe Pollin-Arnold Heft trial revealed that HTS guaranteed the Capitals and the Bullets $1 million each for 1985. A Capital Centre source said the new agreement is "similar in nature financially."
Aber said he is confident that HTS, which has been in operation for two years, will show a profit by "late 1988 or early '89."