Inside the launch of the new 24/7 Olympic Channel

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Sunday July 16th, 2017

Jim Bell offers a pitch for the Olympic Channel that counters the editorial philosophy that a sports channel should feature two dudes arguing over whether LeBron James and Aaron Rodgers are clutch.

“This isn’t embrace debate; this is embrace your partner,” said Bell, the executive producer of NBC Olympics. “This is embrace the athlete. And this is embrace sports that need embracing outside of that magical two-week window every four years. Embrace debate and that type of programming tends to bring out and focus on some of the worst parts of human nature. This is about some of the best parts, some of the best stories, some of the more uplifting stories that people seem to love those two weeks every four years. We think by providing a more consistent home outside of that we think, we have an interesting plan. Time will tell but we are excited about it.”

What Bell is referring to is the Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA, which launched Saturday in about 35 million homes. The linear channel is a partnership between the International Olympic Committee, the United States Olympic Committee, and NBCUniversal and is currently distributed via outlets including Altice, AT&T DirecTV, Comcast, Spectrum, Verizon, DirecTV Now, Fubo, Hulu, Sony PlayStation Vue and YouTube TV at launch. NBC executives said they expect the channel to be in 40 million homes by the end of the year (For those searching for it on your cable system.)

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Why does such a channel exist? In 2014 the IOC, as part of its 2020 Agenda, prioritized the launch of a global digital Olympic TV channel. The digital/social version went live at the end of the Rio Games in 2016. As work on the digital version was happening, NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel and IOC managing director of television and marketing Timo Lumme discussed how an Olympic channel could appear in the United States on linear television. It is the rare linear sports channel to launch in 2017.

The big question, of course, is will anyone watch? Which is always a question regarding Olympic sports in non-Olympic years. Over the weekend the channel aired live coverage from the 2017 FINA World Aquatics Championships and on Monday will broadcast the World Paralympic Track & Field Championships from London. The channel will air 24/7, with some paid programming during the overnight hours.

NBC Sports executives said they are most excited about what is coming at the end of August. Starting on Monday August 28 at 8:00 p.m. the Olympic Channel will air eight original broadcasts on eight consecutive nights of the 1992 Dream Team games in Barcelona. During NBC’s 1992 Olympics coverage, most of the early round games the Dream Team played did not air in full outside of NBC’s Triplecast, which was a pay-per-view joint venture between NBC and Cablevision during the Barcelona Games. The network said the Olympic Channel’s re-airing features the original commentary teams that called the action including Marv Albert alongside analyst Mike Fratello and reporter Quinn Buckner, and the team of the late Chick Hearn and Steve Jones. “I think this will resonate, even with younger people,” said Zenkel.

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Bell said the priority of the programming will be live sports—look for prelims of big sports to air here and lesser-known or emerging Olympic sport championships such as cheerleading. The second emphasis will be original programming such as documentaries. The third emphasis will be archival footage. No new on-air people have been hired for the channel; they will use existing NBC Sports talent. 

On the issue of archival footage, Olympics Channel general manager Mark Parkman said they have 45,000 hours of Olympic event footage, including films that go back to the first modern Games. Some Olympics ABC aired in the 1970s are owned by Disney and not the IOC, but NBC and the Olympic Channel can obviously cut deals with Disney/ABC for such usage. (For example, ABC owns the broadcast rights to the 1980 Winter Olympics.) Parkman said that the channel eventually hopes get to a place where viewers can call up footage on demand from any Olympics.

Lisa Baird, the chief marketing officer of the United States Olympic Committee, said she thinks the channel gives her organization a chance to tell the story of “the regular season” as the Olympics are always the championships. Bell concurred that this could significantly help interest in Olympic athlete stories far longer than the usual lead-up. Keep in mind: This will not be a channel that delves into the underbelly of the Olympic Games, whether drug usage, infrastructure spending, or the IOC awarding Games to authoritarian regimes. Then again, NBC had Billy Bush interview Ryan Lochte in Rio so ….

That doesn’t mean the channel won’t feature ambitious work.

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They are launching a branded documentary series helmed by longtime movie producer Frank Marshall (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back To The Future), which they hope will have the same quality as ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. The digital site is currently running a series produced by Greg Groggel featuring five transgender athletes and how sport helped them find their true identity.

Zenkel said success will be measured on the number of households the channel appears in. The channel will not be rated by Nielsen at launch, which means the public will not know how many viewers are watching.

“One measure is distribution and we feel we can check that box,” Zenkel said. “The other is engagement and awareness by the audience and awareness related by buzz and social media and digital uptake. That should give an idea how we are doing, plus sponsor engagement.”

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