Ah, Albertville: A Sweet Surprise For Cbs

Sipping wine and mineral water and schmoozing with sponsors under tents in snowy Albertville, France, CBS executives are loving the 1992 Olympic Winter Games. But a couple of weeks ago, the folks at Black Rock weren't feeling so festive.

CBS spent a pile of money to buy the rights to the winter games, then ran into trouble selling commercial time at full prices. Advertisers were concerned because other big CBS sporting events, the Super Bowl and the late-March college basketball championship, are already stretching their resources. Moreover, since France is six hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, American viewers could learn results of the events before they sit down to watch them. "We were dubious," says John H. Bennett, senior vice-president for events marketing at Visa USA, an Olympic sponsor.

But now, Visa and the network's other advertisers are believers. Ratings for the first four nights have run higher than most people expected--CBS scored an average 19.7 in ratings and 30 in audience share through Feb. 12, far above the 17 rating it guaranteed advertisers. (One rating point equals 431,151 households. Audience share is the percentage of households whose televisions are tuned into a show.) "There's not even a real story of some American coming out of nowhere doing something magical, and CBS is still doing great numbers," says Paul Schulman, a media buyer who bought time for Ralston Purina, MGM, and ITT. Only gold medal speed skater Bonnie Blair "has done what she was supposed to do. If they had a great story, they could really milk it."

Naturally, CBS is elated. "This performance is significantly above our preliminary expectations," says David F. Poltrack, senior vice-president for planning and research at CBS. "We thought the Olympics had the potential of being strong, but it was very hard to convince Madison Avenue of that."

Another New York thoroughfare, Wall Street, may still have its doubts. CBS, which last year lost $86 million after taxes, paid roughly $243 million for the Albertville games. And there's no way the network can make back that much by selling advertising time, reckons Alan J. Gottesman, a media analyst at PaineWebber Inc. So once again, CBS is losing money on sports, just as it has with Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and college basketball. Still, says Gottesman, "at least CBS has proven they can pull it off."

Oddly enough, viewers may be the least satisfied spectators. Certainly, they've been tuning in, but many have complained about the prime-time hosts, morning-show regular Paula Zahn and sportscaster Tim McCarver. The two, who have never covered the Olympics before, are shown elegantly dressed and engaged in stilted banter in a large room rather than bundled up on the French slopes. Says Bradley Purcell, 31, a research analyst at Lazard Fr eres & Co. in New York: "The discussions between Paula Zahn and Tim McCarver are terribly contrived." He's not planning to switch the television off but says: "I'll try to hit the mute button faster when Paula and Tim come on."

`IDLE CHITCHAT.' Then, there's all that filler on everything but sports. "I want to see the Olympics, and what do I wind up watching? A lot of idle chitchat," gripes Janice Bulleri, a San Francisco office manager and mother of three. Bulleri tuned in to see the speed skating. Instead, she says she was subjected to "45 seconds of skating followed by four commercials, interviews of hometown people followed by commercials, and another 45 seconds of skating."

CBS says those beefs are old stuff. "In the first couple of days, there isn't that much compelling footage because the games have just started," says Poltrack. "You don't have the really exciting events like medals and ceremonies. But as the Olympics progress, you'll see less and less features and more and more action."

If that's the case, viewers will probably stay tuned for the remainder of the games. And if some Americans--the hockey team, for example--storm their way onto the medal stand, CBS could post some golden numbers.