About 30 percent of the commercial time available during NBC's broadcast of the 2002 Winter Games remains unsold, but a top network official said the network isn't going to cut back coverage.

"Absolutely not," Randy Falco, chief operating officer of NBC's Olympics division, told the Deseret News in a telephone interview Thursday. "We are totally committed to the production plan we have in place right now."

Falco said it would be too late to make changes. "Frankly, even if you had to, you couldn't make anything significant in terms of cutbacks at this late point in time," he said. "You just couldn't put on the brakes."

The network is planning on a production crew numbering close to 1,500. That's not counting the drivers, caterers, security and other support personnel nor the estimated 2,000 sponsors and other guests NBC will bring to the Games.

NBC paid a record $545 million for the right to broadcast the Salt Lake Games in the United States, money expected to be recouped from commercials. The going rate is between $600,000 and $650,000 for a 30-second spot, Falco said, the highest ever for an Olympics.

Earlier this month, NBC President Bob Wright said only about 70 percent of the network's inventory has been sold. "We have quite a bit more to go," Wright was quoted as saying by AdAge.com. "It's slower than we would like. There's no question about that."

Falco said his boss was reacting to the "overall sales environment," stung by the nation's economic downturn. "What I think you're seeing now in the marketplace is just uncertainty," he said. "This thing will start to break out sometime at the end of the second quarter."

The pace of sales, Falco said, is about what the network expected. "We're in the 70 percent range. That's not bad. We're not terribly upset by that at all." He said he'd like to sell out the remaining commercial time by "sometime in the fourth quarter."

But Falco said that NBC was still making deals with sponsors even as the 1996 Summer Games began in Atlanta. "We sold a million-dollar spot the

day the Olympics started." Sales for last year's Summer Games in Sydney didn't close until days before opening ceremonies.

SLOC President Mitt Romney said he's not worried, either. He said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC sports, brought up the topic of ad sales in a recent conversation and assured him, "the Olympics are as bullet-proof as you can get."

A media industry analyst based in New York City suggested the slowdown in NBC's sales might indicate a strategic move on the network's part to squeeze more money out of sponsors by waiting out the economic downturn.

"The expectations are that 2002 will be a much stronger year economically," Jack Myers, chief economist for Myers Reports, said. "Rather than selling inventory now at a reduced rate . . . (NBC will) hold back the inventory and sell it when the market is stronger."

Not so, said Falco. "That's not the way you go about trying to hit a sales target," he said.

Nine of the 10 worldwide sponsors signed by the International Olympic Committee have already bought commercial time, Falco said, with only Samsung yet to sign. Most of the national sponsors have secured spots, too.

What's not affecting sales is the bribery scandal that surfaced in late 1998, Falco said. "That's over and done with," he said. "Even the last nine months of (sales before) Sydney were unaffected by the scandal."

Myers agreed the allegations that Salt Lake bidders tried to buy IOC votes with more than $1 million in cash and gifts are "pretty much a non-issue" with marketers considering whether to buy commercial time during the 2002 Games.

What Myers believes they're more interested in is what the network is doing to bring back viewers after the 2000 Summer Games, where tape-delayed coverage drew some of the lowest ratings for an Olympics in years.

That shouldn't be much of an issue in Salt Lake, where high-profile events like figure skating will be broadcast live. There is also the patriotic draw of an Olympics in the United States.

E-MAIL: lisa@desnews.com