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Volume 21 No. 2
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‘New relatives’ change NBC’s ties to Universal

The upstart sports channel Universal Sports looked to have a bright future four years ago. It broadcast some Olympic trials and received steady cross-promotion on NBC.

Last week, as the most popular Olympic trials were being held for the London Games, the Olympic sports channel was an afterthought. The channel’s diminished presence underscores how much NBC’s priorities have changed since the Comcast merger closed last year.

Universal Sports has rights to Olympic trials highlights for its “Countdown to London” show.
The merger saw NBC Sports switch its priorities from one small sports channel — in which it holds an 8 percent stake — to two well-distributed sports channels that it fully owns — NBC Sports Network and Golf Channel.

Executives at both NBC Sports Group and Universal Sports say they remain committed partners. But they acknowledge that their relationship has changed since NBC Sports Network burst onto the scene.

“We recognize there’s a different reality at NBC Sports now,” said David Sternberg, CEO of Universal Sports, which is owned by Leo Hindery’s InterMedia Partners. “We remain a part of that family, but there are some new relatives.”

NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus said, “We have a business programming agreement with them. But it is an independently owned channel. There’s a partnership that has a shelf life to it. We work very closely with them. We share a lot of programming. We give them windows on the broadcast network to do things. That will continue. We strive to be good partners with them and them with us.”

Though NBC didn’t include Universal Sports in its trials coverage, the two groups are still working together on some Olympic-themed initiatives. NBC’s ad sales team helped Universal Sports secure advertising support from U.S. Olympic Committee sponsor Chobani for 90 seconds of Olympic news that the channel plans to air hourly during the London Games.

Universal Sports, which is in 35 million homes, also has the rights to re-air marquee Olympic trials competitions in the coming weeks, and it will be the only channel to re-air the Olympics after they end Aug. 12.

NBC will provide contractually obligated advertising during the Games. It will give Universal Sports $1.5 million in online digital advertising and $8 million of TV advertising, including prime-time spots.

“That will open up casual fans to the existence of our network,” Sternberg said. “Our promotional message is if you like watching these athletes — Usain Bolt, Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin — you’ll love watching Universal Sports because it’s where they play all year long.”

In June 2008, NBC had bigger plans for the channel. It invested in World Championship Sports Network, which provided Olympic-style programming to 2 million homes via over-the-air TV stations and a website, and rebranded it Universal Sports. The investment was made at a time when the USOC planned to launch an Olympic channel, and NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel said the network planned to put “the full weight of NBC behind [Universal Sports] over the entire 52 weeks of the year.”

Weeks later Universal Sports streamed and broadcast some of USA Track & Field, USA Diving and USA Gymnastics Olympic trials competitions. The two partnered a month later on a deal to jointly broadcast the 2009 world swimming championships and 2009-11 U.S. national championships.

During the 2010 Vancouver Games, NBC used its leverage as an Olympics rights holder to secure space for Universal Sports to build an outdoor studio adjacent to the International Broadcast Center. The channel produced five hours of news programming daily, and NBC funneled the feed to Universal Sports’ headquarters in California for broadcast.

Later that year, the two media companies partnered to acquire rights to the Rugby World Cup. It was their last major acquisition.

Since then, most of their collaboration has been limited to sharing broadcasts of events.

In an effort to control costs, Universal Sports opted not to send staff or produce studio shows from London during this summer’s Olympics. The channel is airing a weekly studio news show called “Countdown to London” and receiving Olympic trials highlights footage from NBC for it. But it’s clear its relationship with NBC has changed.

When asked last week whether any live Olympic trials would be offered on Universal Sports, Zenkel said, “This is the Olympics, which you don’t see on Universal Sports. What you do see is a lot of promotion on Universal Sports. That is the destination for the fans of these sports when you’re not in the Olympics.”

Lazarus added, “The trials are an important part of what is the fabric of NBC Sports Network.”

Sternberg hopes that the London Games on NBC perform well enough to raise enough visibility and awareness of Olympic sports to drive interested viewers to Universal Sports after the Olympics. The channel will try to differentiate itself from NBC and NBC Sports Network by noting that those channels show Olympic sports and cycling events like the Tour de France occasionally, while Universal Sports shows them year round.

“This is still a pivotal and positive year for us,” Sternberg said. “This is when, every four years, real attention is paid to our sports not just by consumers but advertisers and distributors, and we’re working hard to make the most of that.”