A new TV sport: backpedaling

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The doping scandals that plagued cycling's Tour de France right up to its photo-finish finale had broadcasters worldwide in postmortem huddles Monday pondering if the wheels have come off high-priced coverage of big sporting events tainted by scandal.

There certainly has been a sea change in Germany after public broadcasters ARD/ZDF blacked out Tour coverage after the first doping allegations against T-Mobile rider Patrik Sinkewitz (HR 7/19). China, meanwhile, is looking to become the strictest overseer ever of athletic ethics as it prepares for next year's Olympic Games in Beijing.

Nikolaus Brender, head of news and sport at Germany's ZDF, said in an interview that Germany's public broadcasters will continue to exercise the option of canceling broadcasts and voiding sports-rights contracts in cycling and other sports if major rule violations occur.

ARD/ZDF are the main buyers of sports rights in Germany. In addition to holding an option for the 2008 Tour, the public broadcasters control German rights to soccer's European Cup and the Olympics in 2008.

A wave of public support for the blackout and a spate of new doping allegations has led major sports sponsors in Germany — including Adidas, T-Mobile, Volkswagen division Skoda and drinks manufacturer Gerolsteiner — to reconsider their commitments. And not just to professional cycling.

"What happened in cycling can happen in any and all professional sports," Gerolsteiner spokesman Stefan Gobel said. "So we are reassessing sports sponsorship in general. Right now we don't have an alternative."

There are signs that broadcasters' attitudes throughout Europe is becoming more hard-line. As doping violations piled up in the final days of the Tour, the media in several countries called on local broadcasters to follow the German example and ban unfair sports.

"The tactic taken by German broadcasters should be the one for (Italian public broadcaster) RAI to follow," Ivano Fanini, the owner of Italian pro cycling team Amore e vita, said in an interview. "The market share for sports will never grow as long as viewers think the athletes are drugged."

Italian broadcasters are closely watching events across the German border. Just last year, Italy was shaken by a widespread match fixing scandal in top league Series A soccer. While Italian public broadcaster RAI said it has no plans to cancel or scale back coverage of sporting events in the wake of the Tour de France and other scandals, a spokesman said that attitude could change if advertisers start to lose interest in booking commercials during live coverage.

The spokesman confirmed that interest in soccer — Italy's No. 1 sport — seems to be declining slightly in the wake of the match-fixing scandal.

There have even been murmurs of discontent in France, despite strong Tour ratings on public broadcaster France 2, with an average of 3.4 million viewers a day, or a 38% market share. For peak weekend viewing, France 2 scored more than 6 million viewers and market shares of 60% or more.

"At first no one supported us and everyone saw (the blackout) as an overreaction," ZDF's Brender said. "But by the end of the Tour, as the scandals piled up, we saw a change in attitude. Television colleagues from France but also from Denmark, Italy and Spain were saying, 'Your instincts were on the mark.' "

The issue of doping in sports is expected to come to a head in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.

Trying to wash its national image of the doping allegations that have dogged Chinese sports for years, Beijing said last week it would subject athletes to a level of scrutiny and testing never before seen at the Olympics and would pursue a zero tolerance stance.

As the one-year countdown to Beijing begins Aug. 8, doping in sports remains a sensitive issue in China, said Pon de Dios, the chief media buyer in China for Procter & Gamble, the top TV advertiser for the past four years on China Central Television, the state-run flagship broadcaster carrying the Olympics.

"CCTV has a moral responsibility to broadcast the Games, but really, it's up to the athlete and the team to keep sports clean, and I think if there were a doping scandal here it would be unfair to the broadcaster for advertisers to pull out. The Olympics are a much bigger stage than the Tour de France and there's national pride at stake," de Dios said in an interview.

Germany, however, is sticking to its hard-line approach. Last week, German deputy Interior Minister Christoph Bergner emphasized the point when he expressed "concern" that Chinese Olympians might not be properly tested in the run-up to the Games.

"On the road to Beijing, we will look very closely at certain disciplines," ZDF's Brender said. "I know things are different in China, and it won't be easy (to investigate), but we are determined that we don't lie to our viewers."

In the U.S., ratings on CBS, which broadcast weekend coverage of the Tour through a time buy with cabler Versus, were down slightly year-over-year. But CBS Sports attributes the decline to the lack of a U.S. star comparable to seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong.

Rob Correa, senior vp programming at CBS Sports, said there has not been an issue for the network about the doping scandals and no talk of pulling the telecast.

"We report on all that," Correa said. "There's no running away from it."

That's a stance echoed by sports broadcasters across the U.S. Despite scandals ranging from Barry Bonds' alleged steroid use in baseball to NBA referee Tim Donaghy's betting on games, there has been no move by U.S. channels to reduce or black out coverage.

In Japan, where there has not been a single major doping scandal of a local professional athlete, the issue is considered a foreign problem.

"It is difficult for us to imagine this kind of thing happening in Japan," said a sports programming executive at a major Japanese network. "We know that doping is part of a lot of major sports like athletics and baseball in other countries, (but) we wouldn't think of pulling our coverage here."
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