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August 29, 2004 11:30 pm

NBC Universal's gamble on Olympics pays off

By Michael McCarthy

USA TODAY

The 2004 Athens Olympics started with fears of a terror attack, warnings of massive delays and skittish sponsors. But as the games recede into the history books, the media outfits that took a chance on the Olympics look golden.

The big winner is NBC Universal, created by the merger of NBC and Vivendi Universal Entertainment. As of Saturday, the media giant's TV coverage had attracted 198 million unique TV viewers, or roughly 71 percent of the U.S. population. That's a 9 percent increase on the 185 million viewers who tuned in for the Sydney Games in 2000, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Many sports programs are money losers for TV networks due to high rights fees charged by sports leagues. But NBC Universal will pocket an estimated $60 million to $70 million off ad revenue of more than $1 billion. More than 100 advertisers who were on the fence bought $30 million in commercial time after opening ceremonies.

``There were fears about security. People were holding back and taking a wait-and-see attitude,'' says Randy Falco, president of NBC Universal's Network Television Group.

The Olympics also allowed the newly merged entity to divide programming across its six TV networks: the NBC broadcast network and USA, CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo and Telemundo cable networks. Falco says the strategy produced half a million new cable subscriptions. NBC research indicated 61 percent of viewers who watched Olympic events in the afternoon wanted to watch more in the evening. The key now is to keep the new customers without the Olympics.

Will NBC Universal try to regain TV rights to the National Football League? ``Nobody has been able to make money carrying the NFL. We are making money carrying the Olympics,'' Falco says.

Men's magazines such as FHM and Playboy also cashed in with sexy photo layouts of Olympians such as swimmer Amanda Beard, volleyball player Logan Tom and high jumper Amy Acuff. FHM's Olympic issue is on track to sell 1.5 million copies, its biggest ever, says Scott Gramling, editor-in-chief.

There was widespread criticism and debate four years ago when swimmer Jenny Thompson posed for ``Sports Illustrated'' with only her hands covering her breasts. This year's photos didn't cause as much controversy. ``Society's definition of what's sexy is changing,'' Gramling says. ``Very fit athletic types are considered every bit as sexy - or more - than the classic bombshell look.''

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COMMENTARY AND PERSPECTIVE

MIKE LOPRESTI | Gannett News Service

Olympics 2004 were games of education, enlightenment

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IAN O'CONNOR | The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

Biggest winner of 2004 Olympics: Greece

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CHRISTINE BRENNAN | USA TODAY

Athens scores satisfying win

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DAN BICKLEY | The Arizona Republic

Some U.S. women's teams put on best show in Athens

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LYNN HENNING | The Detroit News

U.S. basketball team has gone from stars to targets

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BOB KRAVITZ | The Indianapolis Star

It was Black Friday for U.S.

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