A watery divide in a globalizing world

Most of the IOC’s TV income comes from the huge (and commercial) American market. Over the past 20 years, however, the dependency has been reduced, from over 80 percent of IOC income to around half the total today, making the IOC (despite accusations to the contrary) less, not more, beholden to US broadcasters and marketeers. One of the main American networks, NBC, paid a whopping $3.5 billion for exclusive rights to show the five Olympic Games between 2000-2008 (three summer, two winter) in the USA. And NBC is providing, through its IOC agreement, nearly $800 million (that’s $47 million per day) for Athens 2004’s operations – more than the entire security budget of the Games – and will accredit around 3,000 people for production work. Such investments and efforts are not made lightly. Yet amid all the gushing about relentless growth and universal exposure has been a worrisome trend and drop in interest in the USA in the Olympics, especially without the old reliable rivalry with the USSR to generate suspense. This problem was pronounced during the far-away Sydney Games, when the network also took the risky decision to broadcast most events on tape-delay rather than live. The result was that TV ratings dropped to a 32-year low, which forced the network to broadcast numerous free commercials for overpaying advertisers. The Athens Games, anywhere from seven to 10 hours ahead of the continental US market (depending on the time zone), will thus be a crucial test at an internationally sensitive time. Even apart from the question of cost, the network has been long pilloried for playing up to patriotic sentiment, while devaluing the more international side of the Games, in comparison with long-time rival ABC’s coverage in the past. The fall in US interest necessitated a brash marketing blitz prior to the Salt Lake City Winter Games this past year, catering to the youth market but somewhat undercutting the reverential «Celebrate Humanity» image that traditionally has followed the Games around. And the problem works both ways: International viewership for the Atlanta 1996 Games was unusually low. Even in the global world of the Olympics, the transatlantic divide persists – enough to give IOC marketeers a splitting headache.