Keeping Olympics off cable TV is a coup

No Dick Ebersol? Hey, no problem.

NBC locked up rights to the next four available Olympic Games on Tuesday — beginning in 2014 and extending through 2020 — despite the recent resignation of Ebersol, the colorful NBC Sports chairman who had made turning the Olympics into an emotionally calibrated, heavily produced episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” his signature.

The larger issue, though, is that a broadcast network has retained one of TV’s preeminent sports showcases, denying ESPN’s bid to acquire the Games, which would have meant shifting more coverage of another marquee event to cable.

As it stands, the Bowl Championship Series, part of the baseball playoffs, most of the NBA Playoffs (except the Finals) and a sizable chunk of the NCAA Tournament are now cable-carried events. We’ve almost come to take cable exclusivity for granted, even if it means roughly 10 percent of U.S. homes that don’t subscribe either by choice or financial necessity — which translates to more than 12 million households — are out of luck in terms of watching at home.

“Free TV” might be a misnomer — you wind up paying for most viewing these days, one way or another — but there’s still a difference between a broadcast network, like NBC, and ESPN.

Of course, NBC wasn’t the only broadcaster in the race. Fox made a bid as well, and ESPN surely would have shared some of the sprawling events with ABC, which is also owned by the Walt Disney Co.

Still, with ESPN’s deep pockets and NBC’s new ownership by Comcast — which has sworn to run a tighter ship than previous owner General Electric — the network’s ability to extend its 23-year relationship with the Games (dating back to 1988 in Seoul) has to rank as something of an upset.

According to the Associated Press, NBC — already scheduled to carry the 2012 Games from London — will shell out nearly $4.4 billion for rights to the next four after that. For the network, which has been sucking wind in the primetime ratings, this represents a major coup, with significant qualifiers.

One of the supposed advantages of broadcasting the Olympics is that it lures a huge number of viewers to a network, who will then see all those on-air promos for new shows and (hopefully) decide to come back and watch some of them. Yet more than 200 million Americans watched at least part of the last Olympics, according to Nielsen Media estimates, and that hasn’t helped pull NBC out of the ratings cellar. (If you can name more than one new series from NBC’s 2010 fall lineup, before Comcast put its stamp on things, you probably either watch TV for a living or are related to somebody who produced it.)

Those peripheral benefits are ideally supposed to offset the cost of licensing and producing the Games, which resulted in NBC posting a loss of $230 million on last year’s Vancouver Olympics. The network is doubtlessly hoping it can fare better under the new deal, while not incidentally sending a message about Comcast’s commitment to spend money, where necessary, to be competitive again in primetime.

All of that is secondary, though, to the larger, more symbolic issue of a broadcaster retaining the Olympics — not ESPN, with its multi-billion-dollar war chest, financed in part by the $4 or so a month each subscriber pays for the privilege of having it in their homes. (Do the math: With 100 million cable/satellite customers, that translates to nearly $5 billion a year, before ESPN sells a single ad.)

Of course, NBC will again spray Olympic coverage all over the place — including Versus (the sports network that carries hockey), USA, and other Comcast-owned cable channels. The main coverage, however, will still be on NBC, and there’s something comforting about that — or at least, about ESPN not having it.