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Lighting the Flame Early

8/03/2008 8:00 PM Eastern

The Olympic flame has yet to be lit for the 2008 Olympics games in Beijing ,but NBC Universal has already said it has a “significant” number of cable and satellite distributors signed up to offer cable network and digital content from the 2010 Winter and 2012 Summer Olympics games.

As for the 2008 version, most of the industry has signed on to offer an enhanced package of HD programming, including dedicated 24-hour channels for basketball and soccer, according to NBCU TV Networks Distribution president Bridget Baker.

Baker told Multichannel News that NBCU has completed deals with a “significant” number of cable operators for cable carriage of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and the 2012 games in London. NBCU’s current industry Olympics deal that has spanned five Olympics since 2000 ends with this year’s games.

Baker would not reveal specific MSOs with whom NBC has reached future Olympics deals, nor would she reveal specific deal points.

Cox Communications and Charter Communications are the only MSOs that have confirmed an agreement for future Olympics but neither company would provide specific details.

NBC’s current Olympics deal, negotiated in 2000 by then NBC Cable president and now Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav, included retransmission consent for 13 NBC owned-and-operated stations; deal extensions and rate increases for MSNBC and CNBC; and a roughly $1-per-year, per-subscriber Olympics surcharge — which NBCU now characterizes as “a premium fee.”

Baker would not confirm or deny that NBCU is asking for a “premium fee” for additional Olympic television rights, adding that each MSO negotiation is different and could include distribution renewals for other NBCU cable properties such as Bravo, USA Network, Sci Fi Channel, Oxygen and Telemundo.

“We’re continuing to have discussions with everyone in the industry as the normal cycle we would go through when deal discussions happen,” Baker said. “But a significant part of the industry has [2010 and 2012] deals in place.”

Representatives from DirecTV, Verizon Communications, Comcast and Cablevision Systems would not comment on current or future negotiated deals with NBCU. Executives from Time Warner Cable, Mediacom and the National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC) did not return calls.

“In every case it’s a different discussion — with Cox, we decided to dive in and discuss negotiations between our two companies and the [enhanced package as well as 2010 and 2012] rights were wrapped in,” said Baker. “In other cases, the enhanced package was a separate discussion. [Olympics games] 2010 and 2012 is an easy thing to focus on, but we have a variety of other assets that might not fall neatly into that basket. In cases where it was applicable to talk about 2010 and 2012 we have as part of a bigger, broader discussion.”

On the 2008 Olympics front, NBCU has signed deals with Cox, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Mediacom Communications, Bresnan Communications and several small operators for its enhanced HD Olympics package. The MSOs join telco Verizon and satellite companies DirecTV and Dish Network in distributing the package. A Charter spokesman said the MSO has an agreement in principle pending a formal signing.

Baker said the turnkey package includes more than 800 hours of HD Olympic coverage from Universal HD, as well as HD feeds from NBC, USA, CNBC. In addition, the package includes dedicated sports channels for soccer and basketball, as well as two foreign-language channels in Mandarin (Chinese) and Korean. Baker would not predict how many subscribers will actually have access to the stand-alone Olympics channels.

“The distributors can turn-key these elements for what works best for not just their company but for their systems and locations,” she said. “It’s pretty much elements they can use to their best advantage, but the rollout will be at the operators’ discretion.”

Cox will deploy the two HD sports channels in several of its systems, including subscriber in upgraded areas of its 1.6 million subscriber Hampton Roads service, according to Cox director of media relations David Grabert.

Verizon will offer NBCU’s full compliment of HD channels, as well as the standalone soccer and basketball channels, to all of its 1.4 million subscribers, according to the telco’s director of programming, Bill Binford.

At press time, Comcast said will distribute the HD package, including the two stand alone sports channels, in its Washington D.C. and Baltimore systems, as well as most of its systems in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut.

September