20 Years After: The Olympics Triplecast

It's the twentieth anniversary of the Summer Olympics in Barcelona - and that means it's been twenty years since NBC launched the ill-fated "Olympics Triplecast" concept. The pay-per-view package offered three channels ("red," "white" and "blue") of live content for $95-$170.

It seemed like a revolutionary idea in 1992.

It proved to be one of the biggest cable television turkeys of the 20th century.

And considering cable television existed for only a quarter of the 20th century, that’s saying a lot.

Once upon a time, back in the spring of 1992, as NBC executives were brainstorming ways to bring viewers a unique and unprecedented way to experience the upcoming Summer Olympics in Barcelona – ways that would serve to offset some of the vast funds that NBC has committed for broadcast rights of the Olympic Games, costs that shattered their own previous record to carry the 1988 Summer Olympics from Seoul – they decided on a pay-per-view package that would deliver live, commercial-free coverage of the Olympics via three cable channels. NBC would partner with cable giant Cablevision on this venture, which meant they would split any profits it made, and assume half of its total losses.

And they knew going into the lighting of the torch that the Olympics Triplecast was not going to be a success from the getgo.

“We’ve never expected [to] break even,” said Tom Rogers, then-president of NBC Cable (currently the president/CEO of TiVo) back in May 1992, months before the opening ceremonies bowed in Barcelona. “We’re hoping to do more than the [1.45 million] who bought the [April 1991] Holyfield/Foreman fight.”

“This was never designed to make a killing,” Marty Lafferty, then-VP of Olympics PPV at NBC (currently a programming consultant for digital distribution service GenosTV) was also quoted as saying at around the same time.

As for the apparent mastermind of this venture, then-Cablevision president Charles Dolan, he had this to say as the launch of the Olympics Triplecast drew one month closer: “We might lose our shirts.”

The end result: The Olympics Triplecast ended up taking NBC and Cablevision to the cleaners, to the tune of an estimated $100 million – or roughly the same margin that surpassed NBC’s $300 million bid to air the Seoul Olympics.

And it cost an additional $100 million to operate and promote the Triplecast – and even promotion of the pay-per-view event was flawed in that several NBC affiliates chose not to advertise it, citing it as competition to their own over-the-air Olympics broadcasts.

Advanced sales of aptly-themed Olympics Triplecast packages – a $95 “bronze” package for limited action; a $125 “silver” package for complete action; and a $170 “gold” package for that and glorified souvenirs short of a T-shirt that reads “I bought the Olympics Triplecast, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt” – were virtually non-existent.

“I think people just weren’t ready for it,” New York Times television sports and sports business journalist Richard Sandomir told me via telephone. “The idea that there wasn’t enough time on the broadcast network for all the programming… was somewhat ahead of its time. It was just done in the wrong way, at too high a price.”

Charles Dolan’s son, James, who at the time was vice president of Cablevision (and is currently the entity’s president/CEO), and who had been appointed executive in charge of the venture, had come up with a new $29.95 single-day viewing option, in response to the lackluster advanced package sales he had been seeing in the spring of 1992. He stressed the usefulness of the $29.95 option as he guaranteed “four or five super days that could generate in very high buy rates.”

It’s amazing to see Dolans change their tune over the course of a couple of months. In June of 1992, James Dolan virtually contradicted his own father, vowing: “I think this is going to make money.”

In August of 1992, as the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, as well as the Olympics Triplecast, drew to a close, Charles Dolan admitted: “The public didn’t find enough incremental value for the Triplecast over what they could find at NBC.”

He was also optimistic that the $29.95 one-day viewing pass, which many cable systems along for the Triplecast ride had largely sought, would potentially lead subscribers into eventually shelling out for “the $125 package” (I guess “the gold” was off the table at this point). “That’s how we rationalized it,” he said with days remaining in the Triplecast phase. “There was a lot of rationalization.”

At that point, the $29.95 option was slashed to $19.95, further illustrating a fallout in finding buyers. Yet even then, the elder Dolan “did not think it would do much.”

In short: “We were wrong… We blew it from an economic point of view… I blame myself for all of this.”

NBC even resorted to airing select hours of Triplecast coverage over CNBC, albeit with no audio. There’s even a report that “some cable systems [would] show the Triplecast channels for about five minutes before scrambling the signal, hoping to entice viewers to buy it.”

And in the end, after NBC originally anticipated as many as 2.8 million households springing for the Olympics Triplecast, while executives with the venture later estimated a more down-to-earth figure of 250,000, the actual total number of people who purchased it was around 200,000 – that figure according to Sandomir, who following our conversation wrote his own item on the 20th anniversary of the Olympics Triplecast, which you are encouraged to read.

So why the steep price tags for the “silver” and “gold” packages? Why not mark down the $125 package by $50 or more, when they’re able to offer $29.95 single-day passes that themselves ended up being marked down? To do so would have besmirched the many advertisers of the Olympics coverage on NBC – mind you, the “Olympics Singlecast” – and thus may have impacted their exposure on the Peacock Network during the 1992 Summer Olympics.

Even if the entire package was offered for $29.95, Sandomir thinks there would have been “a lot more buyers” – but at the same time, “they would have lost a lot more money.” Never mind the potential besmirchment from NBC advertisers: compared to today, cable television was more or less still in its infancy in 1992.

“Pay-per-view was relatively new back then,” recalled Sandomir, who added that it was “astonishing” that NBC and Cablevision expected people to pay “triple digits” for such an event at that point in time. “People couldn’t wrap their hands around it, because it was too expensive.

“Even at $29.95, that’s a lot for one day… There was just nothing that could make [the Olympics Triplecast] seem like a bargain.”

As for maintenance of the Triplecast project, would assigning another person to oversee it have made a difference? It’s a mere blemish on the otherwise revered tenure of Dick Ebersol as president and eventual chairman of NBC Sports. “I don’t think he was ever much of a proponent of it,” Sandomir said. “He backed away from it, and let Jim Dolan be the frontman, which probably wasn’t the best of ideas.”

Knowing that Cablevision was, as Sandomir says, “operating in the dark,” with a $50 million net loss that Charles Dolan admitted in August of 1992 that Cablevision was “prepared from the start to lose,” Sandomir suggests that Dolan could have easily shot down any “grandiose” ideas that sounded far too unrealistic to the consumer.

Since that broadcasting blunder in Barcelona, NBC eventually arranged for live Olympics coverage to air on its cable networks such as CNBC and MSNBC, as well as cablers that would eventually come into the NBC Universal fold, such as USA Network and Bravo. And it’s been generating more advertising revenue than dependence on individual viewers to pony up the cash.

Sandomir observed that NBC, which went it alone in covering the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, chose to wait until the right time to expand to other networks. “The idea was that whoever was going to get the Olympic rights was going to have to wait for their cable networks to mature.”

Fast forward to 2012, and NBC now has its own dedicated cable network devoted to sports. And for this year’s Summer Olympics in London, NBC Sports Network is planning to broadcast more than 300 hours of coverage, which is a small fragment of the upwards of 5,500 hours of coverage of London that will air on NBC’s many networks and platforms, which include a 3-D outlet, and the release of the brand new NBC Olympics Live Extra smartphone app, which is only available to current cable/satellite subscribers.

When you compare 1992 to 2012, you can consider the Olympics Triplecast as somewhat of a learning experience, not only for NBC, but for Cablevision. Regardless of how young the concept of pay-per-view was at the time, no matter how many offers they made (viewing privileges for one day rolled back to $19.99 from $29.99) and no matter how many pleas were made (sampling the Triplecast on a “free” cable outlet like CNBC), subscribers were just not buying what they were selling.

Now, with several cable channels at NBC’s service, channels that are widely available on many cable carriers, they’re free to offer more coverage to viewers that they can shake a javelin at. And if CNBC and MSNBC are benefitting from the Olympics, imagine how much of an increase in ratings NBC Sports Network can experience this year.

Twenty years ago, NBC had an Olympics Triplecast consisting of three pay-per-view channels, whose total number of subscribers, either for a one-day pass or any of the “gold,” “silver” or “bronze” packages, probably couldn’t equal even the smallest service area for a major cable company.

This year, NBC has an Olympics multicast – and viewers don’t have to pay a single dime to catch a single dive.

Suffice it to say, NBC has learned its lesson from the debacle that was the Olympics Triplecast.

But is it really fair to label it a debacle?

“You can’t say that it was a bad idea to offer something more than what NBC was doing,” Sandomir argued.

In June of 1992, Tom Rogers had faith in the demand for the Olympics Triplecast. “People aren’t laughing at this product. They’re saying, ‘I can see how it will change watching the Olympics’.”

In 2012, we recognize how the Olympics Triplecast laid down the groundwork for an innovative Olympics viewing experience – as we curb our laughter.

(Attempts to contact Mr. Rogers and Mr. Lafferty at their current respective positions for comments were not successful.)

2 comments on “20 Years After: The Olympics Triplecast

  1. Joe Capitano says:

    You stated: “NBC even resorted to airing select hours of Triplecast coverage over CNBC, albeit with no audio.”

    To clarify: there was an off-camera spokesman during the CNBC hours. Don Gould drew the insurmountable task of selling this package. Additionally, on a few occasions live audio from one of the channels would be called up for a minute or two, though the accompanying video remained in the quad split.

    The biggest crutch was that these CNBC “shows” most often came up in the afternoon or early evening when there was no live action and/or while NBC coverage was on the air in much (if not all) of the country.

    • Diamond Joe says:

      Thanks, Joe. The source I cited above from the Houston Chronicle regarding the CNBC run stated it was “without sound” but did not go into as vivid detail as you did. Much appreciated.

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