Basketball is just one of the sports that could draw viewers to the proposed U.S. Olympic Network. (Getty Images)
Given the massive viewership of the Beijing Olympics this summer, the timing couldn't be better for the U.S. Olympic Committee to take a major step toward launching a U.S. Olympic Network. The 24-hour network would air competitive events, archival footage, human interest stories and maybe even reality shows or Olympic-themed movies.
USOC Chief Operating Officer Norman Bellingham tells Around the Rings that the proposed network could announce a partnership with one or more media companies within the next 90 days.
"Meaningful discussions are taking place on an extended basis with some of the most significant players within the media industry," he said.
The Beijing Olympics, Bellingham said, "further imprinted in people's minds the fact that this is content that can certainly live beyond the time of the Games. That level of interest was so high that people want to continue to follow some of those stars that they started to watch there. There's not a single place for them to find them and they get tired of searching around."
U.S. viewers saw Olympic programming drop from wall-to-wall coverage on several NBC Universal networks during the Beijing Games to almost nothing once the flame went out.
A network dedicated to the Olympic programming could increase the value of the brand prior to negotiations for future Games broadcasting contracts, as well as boost exposure of sports rarely seen on television.
"It'd be huge," said Skip Gilbert, USA Triathlon executive director and the newly elected chair of the NGB Council. "That's an idea that should have come around 20 years ago. Just to be able to have 24-hour programming on the Olympic Movement, it would be a positive reminder to the world what we're about and who our athletes are." Distribution Will Be Critical to Success
Bellingham said the network would be distributed via cable and satellite providers and also would produce content online, through video on demand or mobile phones. He said he did not anticipate a conflict with programming by NBC Universal or any other network with rights to Olympic events.
"The most important part of the process is to understand what the brand is so you can break through the clutter and establish yourself as a significant presence -- as a destination that a significant consumer base would like to go to view on a regular basis," Bellingham said. "The second part of the equation is to secure distribution. If your network is not available in the homes -- distributed through the likes of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Cable, Direct TV or Dish Network -- then you're not going to be able to get the eyeballs to make your network a success."
He said the support of advertisers is integral. "In our case, the Olympic Family of sponsors we envision will be involved in a significant, meaningful way, not just in terms of having advertising presence, but also being integrated into the programming as is appropriate."
For example, he said a corporate partner interested in combatting childhood obesity could sponsor a program that dealt with that issue. Idea in Brainstorming Stage for Two Years
USOC COO Norman Bellingham is helping to get the U.S. Olympic Network off the ground.
Peter Ueberroth, who stepped down as USOC chairman Sunday, initially proposed a U.S. Olympic network in 2006.
"We've got to get up and on the air, and we've got to do that very soon," he said in an address to about 275 people at the recent U.S. Olympic Assembly in Orlando.
Bellingham, a three-time Olympian in canoe/kayak who was an executive at Turner Broadcasting System before rejoining the USOC in 2006, is a perfect fit to get the Olympic network off the ground.
He said the network will help transmit the values and ideals of friendship, unity and perseverance.
Bellingham hopes the programming also will inspire youth to try sport and adopt a healthier lifestyle.
The concept of internationalism will be important. "Showcasing international athletes and in particular the relationships that develop between international athletes and U.S. athletes is a great way to speak to what the Movement's all about," he said.
Will it make money? "I certainly hope so," Bellingham said. But he added, "The objective is not to make a fortune."
He said if he had to choose between a widely distributed network that made a decent amount of money or a narrowly distributed premium network that made more money, he would choose the former. "The objective here is first and foremost to communicate our ideals and values."
Bellingham would not give a specific cost per year for the network, but acknowledged it would be well into millions of dollars. Start-up costs will also be significant. Programming Won't Just be Events
The USOC owns the rights to a lot of archival footage from past Olympic Games, which would provide low-cost content. But he said those shows must have broad appeal.
The proposed Olympic network could carry everything from sporting events to archival footage from past Games. (Getty Images)
"Is it really delivering maximum value and is it building up a brand? And will viewers want to come back to view that yet again? I think a lot of people will be intrigued, but if they tune in and they don't like what they see, it's harder and harder to get them back a second and third and fourth time."
Maintaining the USOC brand promise is the key.
"That's something we're very mindful of as we develop this," Bellingham said, "because the job that NBC has done has been phenomenal in speaking to that brand promise. When people turn on the Olympic Games, they know that they're expecting very high quality content and very high quality insight into the stories of these athletes."
Reality shows could illustrate the journeys that athletes take from youth sport on their way to the Olympics. "I think people are very interested in getting behind the scenes and understanding who these athletes are and reality shows speak to that so well," Bellingham said, although he added that their unpredictability makes him nervous.
"Most of the athletes are the kids next door, and I think the public in general associates with them more closely than they do with the professional athletes out there," he said. "I think that's going to be another strength of the network, that connection that is readily available."
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