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No watching or hearing Games over Internet

IOC bans all video or audio transmissions except via TV

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Picture this: Marion Jones is coiled, ready to leap from the starting blocks to try to capture her second Olympic gold medal. Fans at the 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium in Sydney, Australia, are eager to roar as seconds tick slowly until the race begins. And . . .

Whatever happens after the gun goes off during next month's Olympic Games, don't expect to watch or listen to it online — even after the fact. All video and audio transmissions of the competitions will be banned from Web sites, by order of the International Olympic Committee.

Blame it on TV.

Bringing the world together every two years, the Olympics seem ideally suited to a global medium, such as the Web. But television, with its expensive contracts and extensive viewers, is omnipotent among the five-ring crowd. And it could stay that way for years.

Broadcast rights are generating more than $1.3 billion for the 2000 Games, roughly half of the event's revenue. (The next-highest income producer, global sponsorships, brings in only 21 percent of revenue.) The IOC says it asked TV networks worldwide if they would approve online video or audio of events, live or archived. They had little interest.

"The IOC has a terrific business model now, moving images from the Olympics on a country-by-country basis. You can do that with television but not with the Internet," says Kevin Monaghan, vice president of business development for NBC Sports, which holds U.S. broadcast rights through the 2008 Games. He adds that the Olympic committee doesn't want to infringe upon the Games' TV rights, "nor do we." NBC's Olympics Web site will operate without benefit of audio or video from Sydney's events.

No event during the Olympics will be broadcast live in the United States. Even when they could show snippets of events around 5 a.m. on the East Coast — prime time in Sydney — NBC and its cable arms, MSNBC and CNBC, will hold off. (NBC is a unit of General Electric Co.) The reason: Once its video enters the public domain, newscasts and talk shows can replay it, which would undermine the uniqueness of NBC's coverage during U.S. prime time. Along the same lines, if video of the 400-meter men's relay appeared on the Web before NBC's broadcast, the value of the network's tape would diminish considerably.

Broadcasters' stake in this Olympics is their biggest ever. TV coverage in Japan will jump to 730 hours from 330; it will more than double in Brazil as well. Worldwide, 220 broadcasters will deliver about 30,000 hours of coverage, 29 percent more than the 1996 Atlanta Games. About 3.7 billion people — more than half the world's population — are expected to tune in to Sydney.

The Internet? Tuned out. In fact, NBC is the only broadcaster that bothered to create its own Olympics site www.nbcolympics.com.

"The most optimistic numbers for Sydney are 35 million (unique visitors) for the NBC Olympics site," says Michael Payne, marketing director for the IOC. "That's still only 1 percent of your television audience. It (the Internet) is still very much a secondary way to get your Olympic experience."

Patrick Keane, a senior analyst at New York-based Jupiter Communications, says the IOC should at least permit video highlights on the Internet during the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. He foresees Web rights' ultimately being pitched to broadcast partners such as NBC, though he thinks that's shortsighted.

"They should set up an auction-style format and give them to the highest bidder," says Keane, who believes the two-week event in 2002 could fetch anywhere from $3 million to $5 million.

The IOC plans to meet in Switzerland in December to explore future Internet options. Any alteration, the organization says, would have to protect broadcasters' rights. Radical change is unlikely. "The technology is not there yet to show broadcast-quality video on the Internet," says Dick Pound, vice president of the IOC and a key figure in TV-rights negotiations.

That hasn't hampered U.S. league sites. NFL.com, NBA.com, NHL.com and majorleaguebaseball.comall post video game replays and stream live game audio.

Some sports-news venues with broadcast ties are working creatively within today's Olympic restrictions. ESPN.com will post video and audio from interviews conducted by the ESPN SportsCenter team. MSNBC.com's sports section will stream pre- and post-event video shows.

"It'll be a great companion to the broadcast," says Merrill Brown, editor in chief of MSNBC.com. (WSJ.com and MSNBC.com are in a content-sharing alliance unrelated to the Olympics.)

During the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, some sites filmed television images of events and posted them online, the IOC's Payne says. Lawbreakers will pay a penalty in Sydney.

"We have the magical ability to pull accreditation," says Pound. Down the line, one site that won't have trouble showing Olympic footage is the IOC's venue www.olympics.org. While it can't use audio or video from Sydney, the organization possesses more than 50,000 hours of Olympic highlights going back to 1900, which it plans to digitize.

"With all that content, you could put up an Olympics Channel," muses Pound.


Via The Associated Press