NBC and the International Olympic Committee are inviting sports fans to play a game of make believe.

For the duration of the upcoming Olympic games in Sydney, we're all supposed to plug our ears, cover our eyes and pretend the Internet doesn't exist.

Sure, it sounds a little silly. But it might be the best way to enjoy the preprocessed package of Olympic tidbits NBC will be serving up each night in prime time about 15 hours after the events actually happen.

Even though the morning papers will be printing the results of races to be shown that same night, NBC and the IOC figure we'll still watch. That is, as long as that darned Internet doesn't mess things up.

The IOC has refused to grant credentials to reporters from the Web's most-popular sports sites. And while the group contends NBC doesn't yet own the right to exclusive Web-casts of the games, it has forbidden anyone else from posting video or audio clips of the events.

If this sounds a little ridiculous, well, it is. In this age of instant information, the IOC and NBC are trying to smuggle sounds and images of the games past a worldwide network that's perfectly designed to distribute such data.

Making it pay

Their motive is understandable: to bleed as much cash as possible out of their lucrative broadcast contracts. But their methods won't prevent the Net from eating into TV ratings, and both NBC and the IOC would be better off figuring out how to work with the Net instead of fighting against it.

NBC paid about $700 million for the right to broadcast this year's Olympics in the United States. It hopes to recoup more than $900 million in advertising revenues, just a bit more than CBS probably made for the last episode of "Survivor."

Unlike that show, however, nobody's worried about leaking the results before the broadcast. Indeed, thousands of Web sites will rely on wire copy and reports filed by print and TV affiliates to break news about the games as they happen.

Olympic fans in the United States will have a hard time waiting for NBC's broadcast when the results are just a click away. And if Americans don't win, they might not tune in later that night for a show that labors to build suspense for a day-old event.

But then, much of the news online will be about events NBC won't cover. If the U.S. isn't a medal contender in the javelin toss, you won't see it unless a stray spear wanders off course and impales a U.S. athlete or at least someone sponsored by an American shoe company.

So why couldn't a Web site post clips of events NBC isn't planing to cover? Because that might infringe on broadcast rights sold to a network from some other country. This won't go over well with sports fans who have grown accustomed to instant access to events around the world.

Net can't be ignored

You can see why the IOC is concerned. They've been selling exclusive broadcast rights to countries that, thanks to the Net, suddenly overlap. Appropriately enough, a group that profits from pitting nations against each other is being stymied by a computer network that brings them together.

It seems the IOC has two choices: Either pretend the Net doesn't exist or anticipate its effects and plan accordingly. By the time the overnight TV ratings come in from this year's games, it will be clear the first approach didn't work.

So here's a novel idea: Give people what they want when they want it. Cut deals with multiple Web sites, selling them varying levels of access. Offer big sports portals short clips of everything and allow niche sites to provide complete coverage of less popular events that would never make a national broadcast.

NBC and other international networks will still pay millions for TV rights because millions of people will still want to watch, particularly when the broadcasts are live. But since the Net is always going to beat broadcast to the punch somewhere in the world, the IOC might as well try to make some money off it.

If this leaves the IOC a little short on cash, that's OK, too they can always ask for more bribes.

To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at joes@azstarnet.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL, 60611.

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