“They’re eager to show they can make money running NBC, and the Olympics may not be a way of doing it,” said Craig Moffett, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.
The I.O.C.’s auction for the 2014 and ’16 rights, which has been delayed to avoid the worst of the recession, will test the networks’ desires to demonstrate financial prudence.
Jacques Rogge, the I.O.C. president, said recently that he wanted more than $2.2 billion, which G.E. paid for the 2010 and ’12 rights and for a global sponsorship. But Comcast, without international interests like G.E.’s, has no reason to buy such a sponsorship. G.E. said in 2008 that its sponsorship was paying off with $700 million in contracts for 400 Olympic projects in and around Beijing.
Privately, the I.O.C. thinks the Sochi-Rio media rights could be worth as much as $2.7 billion.
But, Moffett said, “It’s a stretch to imagine making money at $2 billion.”
Network executives say they think that Sochi is less valuable than Vancouver (cost: $820 million) because of its relatively warm winter climate and that Rio should not bring as large a rights fee as a domestic Olympics would have in Chicago, one of the losing bidders in the election to host the 2016 Games.
But Richard Carrion, the I.O.C. member handling the auction, said in an interview, “I think there are plenty of things to make Sochi an exciting place, and Rio is a good summer site.”
Last month, Leslie Moonves, the president of CBS, mindful of NBC’s losses and what the I.O.C. is seeking, seemed to indicate he would bow out of the auction if he could not get a bargain.
“We don’t need to invest in something to lose money,” Moonves told an industry conference, “or just to help the prestige of the network. I think we’re already there.”
Despite its ability to acquire much of what it wants, ESPN has signaled that it will not be profligate in its Olympic bidding, which acts as a preauction brake on the I.O.C.’s optimism.
Last April, ESPN was outbid for the rights to the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament by the combined forces of CBS and Turner, which are paying $10.8 billion over 14 years. ESPN offered 10 percent less than CBS and Turner.
“The N.C.A.A. is instructive,” said John Skipper, ESPN’s executive vice president for content. “We felt we had the best plan. I’m confident we’ll have an excellent Olympic plan, but, like the N.C.A.A., we expect to be aggressive and prudent.”
NBC and Comcast officials declined to comment.
Acquiring the rights to the Olympics is often a case of want, not need. They provide 17 days of highly rated programming and blanket the Internet. But they lack the week-to-week power of N.F.L. games like those that NBC carries on Sunday nights, which is the network’s highest-rated program.
Dick Ebersol, who has run NBC’s sports division since 1989, adores the Olympics, produces them and would probably have left if another network had acquired them. He is part of the Olympic movement, was a close friend of the former I.O.C. president Juan Antonio Samaranch and is a recipient of the committee’s highest honor, the Olympic Order.
In two stealthy moves in 1995 — one of which came shortly after Fox Sports thought it had pre-empted NBC on the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia — Ebersol acquired the rights to the Olympics from 2000 to 2008. Then he outbid Fox by $700 million at the auction for the 2010 and ’12 rights, for which ESPN offered only a plan to share revenue with the I.O.C.
Now, Ebersol’s sealed bids at the coming auction will be made with Comcast’s financial analysis and approval. The purse strings will be held by Roberts, not by Olympic-friendly G.E. chairmen like Jack Welch or Jeffrey Immelt. Instead of working for top NBC executives like Bob Wright or Jeff Zucker, Ebersol will report to Stephen B. Burke.
Wright, who as the chairman and chief executive of NBC Universal was part of a small group that plotted the network’s extended era of Olympic domination, said that the economic projections that justified a bid could be undone by a bad economy years later, which occurred in Vancouver.