Tour scandal has media in recovery gear

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COLOGNE, Germany -- The doping scandals that plagued cycling's Tour de France right up to its photo-finish finale Sunday 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. China, meanwhile, is looking to its laurels as 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 in 2008 and the 2008 Olympics.

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 told The Hollywood Reporter. "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 hardline. 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. ... (Broadcasters) should only air events they know are clean."

Italian broadcasters are closely watching events across the German border. Just last year, Italy was shook 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 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 it would pursue a zero tolerance stance.

"As announced by the International Olympic Committee, the number of doping tests will increase to 4,500 during the Beijing Games," Zhao Jian, head of the Anti-Doping Commission of the Chinese Olympic Committee, told state-run local media.

As the one-year countdown to the Beijing Olympics begins Aug. 8, doping in sports remains a sensitive issue in China, said Pon de Dios, the chief media buyer in China for Proctor & Gamble, the top television 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 a telephone interview from company headquarters in Guangzhou.

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 Olympic athletes might not be properly tested in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics.

"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. The Olympics, the IOC's own guidelines, are very strict and those guidelines are in our contracts. If there are (widespread) violations, than we will have the option (of blacking out)."

In the U.S., ratings on CBS, which broadcast weekend coverage of the Tour through a time buy with cable channel 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, not to the doping scandals.

Rob Correa, senior vp programming at CBS Sports, said that 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. We duly note it, for lack of a better word, on the shows. It's part of the race, unfortunately."

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

Asia also is no stranger to sports scandals. Widespread match fixing in professional cricket shook the sport and led to the resignation of several top Indian cricketers a few years back. But so far, Asian broadcasters have not resorted to canceling broadcasts of suspect sports.

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."

Paul J. Gough in New York, Jonathan Landreth in Beijing, Rebecca Leffler in Paris, Gavin Blair in Tokyo and Eric J. Lyman in Rome contributed to this report.
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