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NBC’s record-breaking Olympic Games deal integral to success of Comcast, NBCUniversal merger

In many ways, this was a negotiation the new Comcast-led NBC had to win.

Naysayers across the media world have been looking for an excuse to write off Comcast’s purchase of a controlling interest in NBCUniversal. Lurking in the back of many a media critic’s mind is the sneaking suspicion that these cable guys wanted to strip the network of its costliest assets, like a villain in a bad ‘80s corporate takeover film.

So the new company’s victory in securing a $4.3 billion deal to air the next four Olympic Games – coming after the much-publicized departure of old-school NBC Sports head Dick Ebersol – sent a serious message.

Linking broadcasters to the cable world means more opportunities for grand content across multiple platforms, not less.

But two important questions are left hanging, following news that NBC’s bid for the Games outshone its closest rival, Fox Sports, by $1 billion.

Given that the last Olympics lost about $200 million for NBC, can the new company make money on the next four Games? And given the prestige and signal sent by the network holding onto Olympics rights for so long, does any of that matter, anyway?

What this Olympics process really heralds is that the shape of modern television, especially regarding big events, boils down to a few words.’’

Platforms, platforms and more platforms.

With extra sports-oriented channels such as Versus and the Golf Channel in the NBC fold, there are more outlets than ever available for Olympic events. That’s likely why Ebersol’s successor, NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus, told the press Tuesday the company would carry every event live in the United States, while also continuing to squeeze the best moments into NBC’s prime time coverage.

These days, sports fans really can have their live coverage and prime time highlights, too.

Back in 2009, I wrote a column urging NBC’s new overlords to leverage their sports media resources to build a cool new alternative to ESPN, using the Olympics as a springboard to develop a new brand, which could unite their disparate channels.

That idea feels even more appropriate today, in the aftermath of Comcast-led NBC’s victory over a penny-wise ESPN bid. The success of recent multi-platform sports coverage events, such as the NCAA’s March Madness and the NBA Finals, indicates the future is filled with sports events crammed into every possible platform, made accessible to fans at minimum cost with maximum branding.

Time for Comcast’s NBC to develop its own sports media brand to unite all those iPad apps, cable channels, broadcast specials and smart phone utilities coming for the next games – ensuring that the Olympics isn’t the only brand which remains constant across the universe of content coming to the marketplace.

The other big lesson provided by other major sports spectacles is the continuing ability of big events to bring viewers in larger numbers.

The ratings for the NBA and NFL make this notion obvious; in a world of sinking broadcast ratings and shortening attention spans, the last shows to attract broad audiences to the same programs are popular sporting events.

So, NBC just paid $4.3 billion for some of the biggest audiences left in television; fertile ground for transferring enthusiasm to other corners of the new Comcast TV empire, and a new way to achieve the same goal broadcasters have worked toward since the invention of the idiot box.

This will allow the network to reach the broadest audience possible – this time, through a multitude of smaller gateways. In process, Comcast and NBC just might define the shape of our TV experience for the next decade or more.

Come to think of it, sounds like winning the bidding war may just be the easiest part of this whole Olympics experience for the new NBC.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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