CTV major threat to CBC's Olympic reign

By ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

Canada's OlympicNetwork is in a fight to retain that title.

CBC's hold on broadcast rights for the Olympic Games faces its toughest test in years today. Executives from the public broadcaster are at International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne, hoping to secure one of the biggest prizes in Canadian television.

At stake -- the broadcast rights to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, which are being sold in a package with the 2012 Summer Games. The venue for the latter won't be announced until July, but Paris is widely considered the frontrunner in a field that also includes London, New York, Moscow and Madrid.

But it's Vancouver that has the attention of the CBC -- which has broadcast every Olympics since 1996 -- and a powerhouse rival in CTV and Rogers Communications. The first Games on Canadian soil since 1988 are expected to be a ratings bonanza, which is why the rights for Vancouver 2010 alone could cost $75 million (all terms US).

By comparison, CBC paid a Canadian record $45 million for the 2004 Athens Olympics. It still has two more Games left (2006 and 2008) in a five-Olympic package.

The last Olympics in Canada -- Calgary 1988 -- fetched $4.5 million (CTV was the winner that time).

RECORD FEE

"I think it will be a record (rights fee) for Canada," John Furlong, COO of the Vancouver 2010 organizing committee, told The Canadian Press. "There is huge interest. The competitive nature of the networks could drive the cost up."

The landscape of the negotiation has changed significantly since the last Olympic deal was signed. Back then, CBC aligned itself with TSN to fend off a challenge by CTV. But now TSN (and French-language RDS) are owned by CTV, and part of a rival bid. CTV's alliance with Rogers also brings Sportsnet into the fold.

The CBC has enlisted The Score has a cable partner, and has Newsworld and digital Country Canada already in its stable, along with French-language Radio-Canada.

While money -- as it always does -- will play a role in the IOC's decision, it isn't the No. 1 factor. IMG Canada vice-president Peter Sisam said the biggest factor in the IOC's eyes is "maximizing people's ability to see coverage of the Games."

"The key element in all of this is making the television pictures available to as many people as possible," said Sisam, who's assisting the IOC in the negotiations.

He pointed to NBC's efforts in Athens, which put 1,200 hours of Olympic coverage on a suite of seven channels. Promoting "Olympism" also counts in a big way.

For the first time, Internet video streaming and wireless rights are part of the negotiation. CTV and Rogers, which are in business in both areas (Bell Globemedia is CTV's parent company), are thought to have the edge in that area, though CBC is believed to be pursuing Telus as a wireless partner.

Both sides will present sealed bids today to the IOC, which will announce the winner at a 3 p.m. news conference. Who's the favourite? Many in the broadcast industry say it's too close to call.

Today's decision might have repercussions beyond the Olympics. It's already being speculated that the cash-strapped CBC, already taking a major financial hit from the NHL lockout, might slash amateur sports coverage if it loses the Games.

OLYMPIC SHOWDOWN

A look at the Olympic bidding war between CBC and CTV:

AT STAKE: The Canadian television rights for the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Olympics in a city yet to be determined.

CBC: Has joined forces with cable sports channel The Score. Telus may also be part of the bid.

CTV: Aligned itself with Rogers Communications, which owns Sportsnet. CTV also owns TSN, RDS and Outdoor Life Network.

The Cost: Total for the two Games between $125 million and $150 million US. The Vancouver Games will command about $70 million US. The 2012 Summer around $50 million US.

The Process: Networks will make two-hour presentation to IOC in Lausanne, Switzerland, on today. Decision expected today.