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Olympics ads lag 1996 pace

For TV stations, even the Olympics are a tough sell in this economy. The cold ad climate has dramatically slowed the pace of ad sales at many local NBC affiliates across the nation for the Salt Lake City games in February.

Some stations have sold less than half their available ad inventory. By comparison, many stations were close to or at sellout four months prior to the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, the last U.S.-based Olympics.

But station executives also report that there have been signs of renewed advertiser interest in the games and that, in some cases, the sales pace has picked up in the past several weeks. Advertisers are making commitments to buy later than ever, they add.

Station managers also remain optimistic that the games will be a big draw for advertisers, especially in light of the terrorist attacks, which appear to have galvanized the nation's sense of patriotism. That in turn has stirred a desire by marketers to pitch messages wrapped in the flag in new ad campaigns.

Part of the problem for stations is that NBC is selling out more slowly than for previous games. The network is in fairly good shape, having sold more than 90% of its Salt Lake inventory. But it took the network longer to get to that point compared with Atlanta, when the network was 90% sold a full year before the start of the games. "Once NBC is done, the local spots will move," says one analyst who follows TV.

"Olympic sales have been slower than desired for the last four to five months," says Jack Sander, president of Belo's TV group. "I think it reflects the economy and advertisers' slower roll-out of 2002 plans and strategy." The Sept. 11 events probably exacerbated the situation, he adds.

Two weeks ago, during a teleconference with Wall Street analysts, Gannett chief executive Doug McCorkindale said ad sales for the 2002 Winter Olympics are "not being as aggressively booked on the broadcast side as one would have hoped." But he also noted that the pace of bookings in the current environment, which is volatile, can change quickly.

Sander is hopeful that clients will focus more on the Olympics in the latter part of the fourth quarter. "I do think you will see strong advertiser interest in the Olympics as it is the perfect place to use some of the creative that is and has been developed" to capture the country's patriotic fervor, he says. "So I think sales will be fine but late in coming."

A senior executive at another major group operator says that, after months of lagging, "there's been a renewed interest in Olympic sales in recent weeks, and they are starting to pick up." Some advertisers, the executive said, "who had taken a pass before are coming back in and saying let's talk about this." Certainly, part of that renewed interest has to do with the fact that many advertisers believe they must say something about the Sept. 11 events. "If there is any event appropriate for doing that, this is it," the executive said. "Our people are reminding advertisers that this is going to be an event that people will embrace in a greater way than we might have thought."

For some stations, Olympics sales are doing fine. Granite's about 85% sold out.