It's a small French-speaking town on the sun-licked shores of Lake Geneva where visitors are drawn to the leisurely pursuits of bike riding, wine tasting, and architecture gazing. But this week, the nation's top U.S. media executives, among them Brian Roberts of Comcast Corp., will travel to Lausanne, Switzerland, not in pursuit of these timeless pleasures, but in the hunt for one of the biggest prizes in sports entertainment.
The International Olympic Committee will hold its auction for the U.S. TV rights to the 2014 and 2016 Olympic Games at its headquarters in Lausanne on Monday and Tuesday, and the winner will walk away with Olympic bragging rights and the potential ratings bonanza that comes with the airing of hundreds of hours of eyes-glued-to-the-TV sports footage.
This year the big issues are whether those Olympic rights have become too costly for even the largest media companies and whether NBC, now owned by Comcast, will retain its title as "the Olympics network."
Because of Comcast's purchase of NBCUniversal Inc. in January, Roberts will appear at the auction for the first time. Insiders think Comcast holds the key to what ultimately happens in Lausanne.
And what happens before the IOC will be parsed and measured by many as it regards what kind of steward Comcast intends to be for NBC.
One of NBC's most highly prized properties, the Olympics rights have been both a ratings blessing and a financial curse. The New York-based network lost about $220 million on the Olympics for its former corporate parent, General Electric Co., in 2010, when the Winter Games were held in Vancouver, British Columbia. The network could post even larger losses for Comcast in 2012, when the Summer Games are held in London. The London Games are the last under the current rights contract held by NBC.
Comcast has stated it does not intend to overpay, and that theme was repeated Friday by a company executive, who could not speak on the record, that Comcast would be fiscally disciplined in Lausanne.
The uncertainty over the cable company's actions seems to have put the U.S. TV rights for the Olympics into play for the first time in years. Officials of the Walt Disney Co., the owner of the ESPN suite of channels, say they will make a strong bid. Ripping a page out of General Electric's playbook, Disney has hinted it will sweeten its offer with an Olympic corporate sponsorship.
Just as Roberts will be there personally to pitch NBC, the head of Disney, Bob Iger, will be part of the Disney contingent in Lausanne. It is rare to have the heads of two entertainment companies directly participating in the auction.
Roberts will be joined in Switzerland by his top lieutenants, NBC head Steve Burke and chief financial officer Michael Angelakis.
The wild card could be News Corp., the Rupert Murdoch-controlled media conglomerate that has effectively used sports rights to the NFL, Major League Baseball, and NASCAR to boost TV ratings. News Corp. is expected to bid for the Games for its Fox Sports network.
Neal Pilson, a consultant and former president of CBS Sports, said last week that he believed "the Olympics have been an outstanding brand" for NBC - one of the few consistent ratings rainmakers - and the Olympics remain "more important to NBC and the NBC Network than they are to NBC's competitors."
Comcast would like to expand its Versus cable sports channel into more U.S. homes and charge higher subscriber fees for it, and the Olympics could help in those goals, Pilson said. Comcast could change the Versus name to one that includes NBC some time this summer.
Winning the Olympics would be a validation of Comcast's deal to acquire NBCUniversal, Pilson said. Comcast, as it sought approval for the acquisition, told the public and the government that it would preserve the traditions of NBC TV, which would seem to include its storied hold on the Olympics.
The starting point for the bids is expected to be about $2 billion for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. In a break from tradition, Olympic officials have asked the media companies to place separate bids for the broadcast rights for four Olympic Games through 2020.
The executives of the three companies will meet separately for two hours with officials at the Olympic headquarters to explain their plans for carrying the Games, and then present formal bids. The plans include how the Games will be promoted by the networks, the themes in the coverage, and the number of hours of coverage available to the public. Olympic officials are expected to announce the winner early Tuesday evening.
Many say they believe these are Comcast's Olympics to lose - because NBC has held Olympic rights since 1988. NBC also has extensive production capability for the Olympic Games and friendly relations with Olympics officials.
But NBC may have lost some of that advantage when Dick Ebersol, the legendary NBC executive whose name is synonymous with the televising of the Olympics, resigned in May. Ebersol said publicly he resigned over a contract dispute. Many inside the company say they believe it had to do with a difference of opinion over how aggressively Comcast should bid for the Games. In any case, Ebersol's departure puts the spotlight on Roberts and Comcast.
IOC president Jacques Rogge told the Associated Press that when Ebersol resigned, Burke and Roberts phoned him to emphasize that Ebersol's departure would not affect the network's participation in the bidding process.
"They have reiterated that they were very committed to participating in the full bidding," Rogge said.