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NBC's Lazarus: Super Bowl ad sales ahead of schedule; Olympics picking up

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NBC's Lazarus: Super Bowl ad sales ahead of schedule; Olympics picking up

Ad sales for two of the biggest events in sports, Super Bowl LII and the 2018 Winter Olympics, are in different places ahead of their presentations in early February 2018.

Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Broadcasting and Sports, told attendees of TV2020 at the NAB New York Show on Oct. 18 that advertising sales for the NFL championship game are pacing well, while inventory for the Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, has not been moving as quickly.

The overall pace of Olympics sales has been "a little slow," he said, as there have been changes in the wireless and auto categories that resulted in turnover in sponsorships at the national and local levels. "Things are heating up in the fourth quarter," a trend that should continue into early 2018, he said.

Although NBCU will offer 6,000 hours of Olympic fare across its broadcast, cable and digital platforms, Lazarus said the vast majority of viewing will be ascribed to NBC in prime time. Noting the degradation of linear TV audiences over the past four years, he anticipates that PyeongChang fare won't perform as well as the programmer's presentation of the 2014 Winter Games from Sochi, Russia, which averaged around a 12.0 in prime time.

NBC will be working with the International Olympic Committee's Olympic Broadcast Services on 4K production of one show from one venue per day from South Korea. Lazarus said much of the funding is coming from multichannel video programming distributors, as NBCU parent Comcast Corp. and AT&T's DIRECTV believe the enhanced format brings value to their customers.

Lazarus said NBC is investigating 4K production for Super Bowl LII, but U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis is small by NFL standards and the logistics of bringing in additional equipment and adding more camera positions might mitigate against the network going "full bore" with a 4K production of the title game.

Although he didn't disclose a sell-through level, Lazarus said Super Bowl ad sales are ahead of schedule.

Asked about the eroding audiences around pro football, Lazarus said ratings hit an all-time high for NBC's "Sunday Night Football" package two seasons ago. He said NBC was "fighting a few things," notably changing media habits, especially among young demos, as 18-to-34-year-olds are not spending as much time watching full games. He said erosion is stemming from younger viewers following scores and highlights, and not watching extended chunks of the telecasts. "We're training people to follow sports, not to watch sports," he said.

The quality of games has also been a factor and NBC is experiencing more drop-off in viewership late on Sunday nights than it has sustained in the past.

Lazarus said he believes the divisiveness around players kneeling during the national anthem is also pushing some viewers away.

Despite the confluence of factors, Lazarus said thus far in the 2017 season, some "Sunday Night Football" games have registered gains, while others have dropped when measured against last season's corresponding slate.

Asked if the audience decline could result in lower rights fees, Lazarus replied that "one can hope," before noting there has been continual talk of "a tipping point" for higher rights fees over the past 40 years.

U.S. rights to Formula 1, previously held by NBC Sports, just went to ESPN "without rights fees," he noted. Rights to Ultimate Fighting Championship and the NFL's "Thursday Night Football" package, which will expire for NBC and CBS after this season, could serve as "bellwethers" for the sports media community. Lazarus expects discussions for the "Thursday Night Football" package to begin within the next 60 to 90 days.

While Amazon is currently a partner in the "Thursday Night Football" presentations, along with NFL Network, the league's in-house service, Lazarus believes that broadcast will remain at the head of table when the bulk of NFL rights deals come into play again early next decade.

"There is an advantage to incumbency," he said, noting that with subscriber losses, the household reach gap between the pay TV ecosystem and broadcast continues to widen.

Lazarus said he was not worried about the broadcaster's licenses being revoked, following President Trump’s threatening tweet to that effect. The tweet came after NBC News reported Trump had proposed a tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

"We feel very confident in what our journalists do and that the FCC will support the First Amendment," Lazarus said.

With industry consolidation engulfing the TV station industry, he said NBCU is not "actively seeking acquisitions" though it may consider select stations that might become available through divestitures. He said that if a station aligned with the company's interests in a big market that could result in duopoly between NBC and Telemundo, it would be open to that, for instance.