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BLOCKBUSTER TV CONTRACT SPELLS SUCCESS FOR 2002

One of the common complaints by Utah foes of the 2002 Winter Olympics has been that state taxpayers could be stuck with huge unpaid bills if the Games lost money.

But that possibility - always rather remote, thanks to careful planning and cautious budgets - faded even more this week when NBC made a record-breaking deal to televise the Olympic event.The network will pay $545 million for exclusive TV rights to the Winter Games - some $235 million more than had ever been offered previously - and the International Olympic Committee apparently accepted the deal as being "too good to pass up."

The size of the incredible pact is illustrated by the fact that the amount is not only nearly double the figure for the TV rights for the 1998 Winter Games scheduled in Nagano, Japan, but the Salt Lake City figure also is some $90 million more than ever offered previously for the popular Summer Games.

The broadcast rights for the Salt Lake Games are part of a package deal with NBC that includes another $705 million - a staggering sum - for the Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, in the year 2000.

Officials of the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee quickly agreed to the NBC-IOC deal. And why not? The committee knew that the Winter Games likely would produce a record bid and budgeted for $400 million as being a safe bet. But no one expected something well over $500 million.

Under the contract with the IOC, the organizing agent for the host city gets 60 percent of the TV funding to help put on the Games.

Other television networks certainly will be unhappy with the agreement since they were unable to make their own bids. The bidding for TV rights was supposed to start in late 1997, but there was no official date. However, this is not like a government contract where open bidding is required before a deal is signed.

In any case, the NBC offer - a take-it-or-leave-it deal with a very tight deadline - may have proven too high for ABC and CBS to match. No one will ever know for sure. One of the more frustrated losers undoubtedly is Rupert Murdoch's Fox Network. Murdoch badly wanted the TV rights 2000 Summer Olympics in his native Sydney.

With the more-than-expected television money in hand so early, much of the anxiety and pressure is removed from the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee's scheduled budget. It doesn't mean that officials suddenly can become profligate spendthrifts, but it does provide more flexibility.

The possibility of a tidy profit, including money to help operate some of the Olympic facilities after the Games are over, now seems like a goal that will be easily realized.

The blockbuster deal with NBC is a rich seal of approval on the 2002 Games and a glittering reward for all those officials who have worked long and hard over the years to bring the Winter Olympics to Utah.