SBJ/20090406/This Week's News

USOC takes channel pitch to Comcast

The U.S. Olympic Committee’s road to a stand-alone Olympic channel now appears to be moving through Philadelphia, the home city of the country’s largest cable operator.

The organization has been talking with Comcast officials about partnering on such a network, but one of Comcast’s top executives last week sounded skeptical that a year-round channel with Olympic content would work.

“It’s no secret that they’ve been out there talking about it,” said Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen. “Before there can be an Olympic Channel or an Olympic Network, you have to really figure out what it is that’s going to be on it and what it does to Olympic rights.”

The USOC’s dalliance with Comcast comes after ESPN, Discovery and NBC all passed on the idea, though there may still be some interest among them. NBC, for example, has continued talks with the USOC.

A USOC-backed network would feature a mix of live and taped events, documentaries on Olympic moments, biographies of athletes, and coaching and instructional videos. It would face considerable competition from Universal Sports, NBC’s new sports channel dedicated to Olympic sports. The NBC channel, which already has distribution in 50 million homes, has rights to marquee international competitions such as the FINA World Swimming Championships and the Alpine World Ski Championships.

A big question is whether an Olympic channel
could get rights to key events.

Cohen suggested that the USOC needs to get additional rights for its planned channel to be successful.

“If you think about it, almost every premier event that you or I would want to watch related to the Olympics has been sold to some network,” Cohen said.

The USOC hopes its channel would function on the dual revenue stream of subscription and advertising revenue that other cable networks use, though its license fee would be well below other sports channels.

The USOC sees a cable channel as critical to its future, believing that it will help the organization market the Olympic movement, strengthen the USOC brand, create a new platform for sponsors and generate new revenue for the organization.

The USOC first started looking into launching a network in July 2006. Since then, the network’s launch plans have been filled with delays. It originally was hoping to launch a channel before the Beijing Games.

The USOC then targeted February 2009 for a launch. It hired Allen & Co. last year to advise it in its effort to launch a channel. Steve Greenberg, who advised Major League Baseball on the launch of its network, is leading the charge for the firm, which has helped the USOC with introductions, financial models and strategy on how partnerships might work. He is working with USOC Chief Operating Officer Norman Bellingham.

But Comcast seems to have more questions than answers about the value of a partnership.

“What are you going to put on that network?” Cohen said. “Are you going to put on reruns of Michael Phelps? I’m not sure what the value is to that.”

Speaking in November, Bellingham remained confident about the quality of programming for the channel, saying the ratings generated during the Beijing Games underscored the value of an Olympic network.

NBC’s coverage of the Beijing Games averaged a 16.2 national rating and 27.7 million viewers for its 17 prime-time telecasts, up 8.0 percent and 12.6 percent, respectively, over the 2004 Athens Games. It was the highest-rated Summer Games since the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

“[The value proposition] hasn’t changed,” Bellingham said in November. “It’s just that people are starting to see it. The Games drove the value of this content home.”

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