Don't cut TripleCast's cable yet Last-minute buys high in pay-per-view

July 22, 1992|By Ray Frager | Ray Frager,Staff Writer Leslie Cauley of the Business staff contributed to this article.

Here's what we know about the Barcelona Olympics: The Dream Team will romp, Bob Costas will be the Games' best host since Jim McKay and NBC's TripleCast will lose a ton of money.

Well, as the great cartoon philosopher Quick Draw McGraw once said: "Hold on thar, Bobalooie."

Let's not dispute the first two assumptions, but maybe everyone's predictions of gloom and doom have been a little too cloudy.

Initially, NBC estimated 2 million or more would subscribe to the TripleCast -- a three-channel, pay-per-view version of the Games. This was supposed to help the network recoup some of the $401 million it spent on rights to the Olympics.

Then a few numbers started trickling in, and the buy rates were laughably low -- less than 1 percent in some cable systems. (In Baltimore County, for example, Comcast said yesterday it had about 250 households signed up -- about 1.6 percent.) To reach 2 million subscribers, NBC and Cablevision, partners in the TripleCast, needed to get about a 5 percent buy rate. All of a sudden, the TripleCast looked as if it would join CBS's $1.06 billion baseball deal in the TV Sports Hall of Shame.

However, NBC has announced that TripleCast had drawn 50,000 to 60,000 subscribers by the beginning of last week. Sure, that's only about 1.95 million behind, but there is a basic fact of pay-per-view life to consider: Up to 90 percent of subscribers purchase an event on the day it occurs.

"For people to say anything about how this event was going to do two months ago was absurd," Jim Dolan, head of the TripleCast, told The New York Times this week. "We are way ahead of the curve on where we should be based on what's happened in the past."

In fact, Dolan said, the buy rate thus far extrapolates to 3.3 million subscribers.

"I'm not going to tell you I'm going to get the 3.3 million subscribers, but I am now very optimistic that we're going to have a successful event here," Dolan told the Times.

Because of the unique nature of the TripleCast -- no one ever had tried to sell a 15-day, pay-per-view package containing, for the most part, mainstream sports -- it's difficult to dispute Dolan's prediction. Or to dispute the naysayers.

Seth Abraham is president and chief executive officer of Time Warner Sports, which produces TVKO, a pay-per-view boxing series. And even he's not sure what will happen.

"There's never been anything like this before," Abraham said yesterday, "not at this price, not at this extent. There is no road map. It's too early for people to bury it."

Abraham said he's also not certain that last-minute, flurry buying, so prevalent in boxing and pro wrestling events, applies to the TripleCast.

"It's day specific to an event," he said of flurry buying. "I'm not sure that if it's true for one night, it's true for two weeks.

"But let's say an American athlete gets hot, and just captures the public's imagination. It may be on that day that the athlete runs, jumps or swims, there may be a flurry."

Or, to use an example from Abraham, suppose the U.S.-Soviet hockey semifinal in 1980 had been a pay-per-view event.

Beyond satisfying a need for live coverage of every second of every rout by the U.S. men's basketball team, what is the TripleCast offering?

Starting Sunday, TripleCast will present three channels, each assigned specific sports, running live coverage from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. (11 a.m.-11 p.m. Barcelona time). Then, the coverage will be replayed, in the same order, from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Don't look for any up-close-and-personal features on the TripleCast. It's wham, bam, look at Michael slam. Though the wall-to-wall coverage might pause for an interview or switch momentarily to the anchor desk, the TripleCast mostly is concerned with capturing all of the day's action -- every stride on the track, every spike on the volleyball court, every clop in the equestrian arena.

You can buy all 15 days for $125 or a single day for $29.95. Or you just can watch NBC's 161 hours of regular coverage.

NBC plans to have a live feel, but most of its Olympic telecasts will occur when the Games are asleep. Costas, NBC's primary host, said the live feeling is important, even if American viewers are seeing it on tape.

"I don't want to -- unless it's impossible -- talk about an event already knowing the result," Costas said this week. "You want to have it play itself out chronologically."

"We want to do as much commentary live to tape as possible," Terry O'Neil, NBC Sports executive producer, said earlier this year.

"When you put your children to bed at night, they don't ask to be told just the end of a story," O'Neil said. "What we want to be is ruthlessly consistent, and tell the viewer we're not going to give you results [first]."

So the NBC audience will see much coverage produced as though it were live -- though Costas said the network isn't trying to be duplicitous.

"There's no attempt to fake out the audience," he said. "They know the time difference."

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