Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA - the what, the who, and the why

The Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA debuted in the US last weekend, part of a multi-stakeholder effort to raise the profile of Olympic sports in the American marketplace.

Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA - the what, the who, and the why

What is it?

Launched last Saturday, Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA is a new linear TV network that will provide year-round, 24/7 Olympic programming to viewers across the United States. It has been created as part of a three-way partnership between the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), and NBCUniversal, the exclusive US broadcast rights holder of all Olympic Games up until 2032.

Speaking on a conference call last Thursday, Mark Parkman, the general manager of the Olympic Channel, described Saturday’s launch as “one of the major milestones” in the development of the service, which launched as a digital and over-the-top (OTT) offering at the conclusion of last summer’s Games in Rio last August.

Where is it available?

The channel is initially available in around 35 million US homes thanks to carriage deals with many of the country’s leading distributors, including NBC owners Comcast, DirecTV, AT&T, Altice, Charter, Spectrum, and Cox. It will also be distributed across all IOC, USOC and NBC platforms - with live streams provided by OlympicChannel.com and Olympic Channel app as well as NBC Sports’ digital platforms - and other offerings such as DirecTV Now, Fubo, Hulu, Sony PlayStation Vue, and Google’s YouTube TV.

According to Gary Zenkel, the president of NBC Olympics who also feature on last week's call, it is projected that distribution of the channel will rise to around 40 million US homes by the end of the year, with further growth in future once deals with more distributors are agreed. Most of the content provided by the global Olympic Channel will remain accessible to everyone in the US, while the American linear and digital version will only be available to subscribers of cable and other paid-for services.

What is it covering?

Programming will specifically shine a spotlight on American athletes and teams in summer and winter Olympic sports, providing a mix of live event coverage, Olympic-themed original content and magazine shows, archive footage from the IOC and NBC libraries, and original Team USA programming produced by the USOC.

Live sports will be the number one focus - last weekend, for example, the channel debuted by airing live coverage from the 2017 FINA World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, while this week it will broadcast the World Paralympic Track & Field Championships from London. Original programming such as documentaries and archive footage will also feature prominently - next month, for instance, the channel will air eight original broadcasts showcasing games played by the ‘Dream Team’, USA’s star-studded, gold medal-winning men’s basketball team, at Barcelona 1992.

“This is not about embracing debate,” said Jim Bell, the executive producer of NBC Olympics, referring to a strategy that will see opinion-led shows - the kind now pushed by the likes of ESPN and Fox Sports - take a back seat to live or delayed sports-focused programming. “It’s about embracing our partners, with the IOC, the USOC and the federations. It’s about embracing the athletes at an even earlier stage than we do now, and about embracing sports; in many cases, sports that could use some embracing.”

Though NBC and the USOC will take a lead on programming, which will also include some non-Olympic pursuits such as cheerleading, some content will be produced by Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), the IOC’s Madrid-based broadcasting production arm that is a sister company of the global Olympic Channel. NBC may also look to showcase some live events from upcoming Olympic Games on its channel, although it seems more likely it will use the service to generate viewership between Games in the hope of driving more eyeballs to coverage provided by its flagship stations when the main event rolls around.

For next February’s Winter Games in PyeongChang, Zenkel says the new Olympic Channel “will certainly be in the mix” alongside the existing NBC channels, probably as a complementary service as opposed to an outright replacement. Zenkel used the example of certain races or heats that might not make it into NBC’s main coverage due to “time constraints or because of other commitments on those networks”.

As it stands, there are no plans to create a Spanish-language version of the channel in the US. Zenkel has said, however, that “the opportunity may exist for content” to be created in Spanish for Telemundo Universo, NBCUniversal's existing service tailored towards Hispanic audiences, particularly given the Olympic Channel is already produced in Spanish by OBS’ central team in Madrid.

We see this as a great way to deliver additional value to those sponsors that invest so heavily in the Olympic Games.

Who’s paying for it?

As part of IOC president Thomas Bach’s Agenda 2020 reforms, which set out a series of recommendations that would serve as a strategic roadmap for the future of the Olympic movement, some US$536 million was earmarked by the committee to cover the Olympic Channel’s operating budget until 2021. Three of the IOC’s global TOP sponsors - Alibaba, Bridgestone and Toyota - have come on board as founding partners of the channel, and Parkman has said he expects “one or two more” to sign up “in the coming months.”

It is not known how much each partner, which will work with the IOC to co-produce content, is paying to sponsor the channel, and the same can be said for the investments being made by the IOC, the USOC and NBC in the US. What is clear, though, is that traditional monetisation methods will be pursued to generate revenue from the channel, including 30-second commercials and other advertising integrations within certain content or programming. 

According to Bell, the channel gives sponsors of the IOC and USOC another means through which to highlight their Olympic association and activate their partnerships. “This has not existed before,” he noted on Thursday’s conference call. “We see this as a great way to deliver additional value to those sponsors that invest so heavily in the Olympic Games.”

Lisa Baird, the USOC’s chief marketing officer, added that the national governing body’s own sponsors are “pretty excited” about the new marketing opportunities the channel will provide. “One of the common challenges that we have as a property that takes place every two years is the ability for a sponsor to actually activate it and work it into their regular marketing plan which occurs every day,” she said.

“So we are really pleased with the IOC and the founding partners that the global group has brought in, and we’re thrilled that Comcast who is our sponsor, Team USA, has sponsored a challenge, and we are right now in market talking to a number of our other domestic sponsors about joining in. That’s just an opportunity we have been looking for for a long time.”

The new US Olympic Channel will aim to tell the stories of American athletes, such as gold medal-winning gymnast Simone Biles, in non-Olympic years.

Why now?

NBC is the venerable home of the Olympics in the US, not to mention the biggest single benefactor of the worldwide Olympic movement. In May of 2014, the broadcaster shelled out some US$7.65 billion to retain its Games rights in the US until 2032, adding 12 years and six Olympics to its existing US$4.38 billion deal as part of a renewal that would see it fork out an increased US$2.55 billion per Olympic cycle.

Given that unmatched outlay, the creation of the new network is undoubtedly a way for NBC to extract greater value from its Olympic rights, primarily by serving as an outlet for the hundreds of hours of Olympic content that simply cannot be shown on existing NBC channels.

NBC already provides over 100 hours of coverage of Olympic sports each year, but this channel is an opportunity to dramatically ramp up that output whilst building a more consistent narrative and telling the individual stories of the American sportsmen and women who will go on to feature in the Games themselves.

For the IOC, whose Agenda 2020 reforms have sought to ensure the Olympic movement stays relevant in a much-changed media environment, the creation of a US version of the Olympic Channel harbours significant benefits. While the channel itself is the first linear offering of the Olympic Channel in any country, it also fits within the overarching aim of the global service, which is to raise the profile of Olympic sports in non-Olympic years through regionalised programming geared towards the local market, and by way of new content and distribution methods aimed at engaging more youthful audiences.

Parkman himself said he is “hopeful that, through what we are doing both on the global scale and the local scale and through our digital platforms, that we are going to inspire a new generation to become more participatory in sport, to become more participatory in Olympic sport and to build that next generation of Olympic fans.”

To that end, Parkman confirmed that the IOC is exploring the possibility of replicating this US experiment in other markets where it makes sense to package a linear Olympic Channel into new rights deals with its other broadcast rights holders - such as in sub-Saharan Africa, where the IOC recently confirmed new multi-Games deals with three media companies.

“We are in active discussions and will probably be able to announce some more partnerships,” Parkman confirmed, although he noted the way in which each market and region presents its own unique set of challenges. “There are no similar circumstances between broadcasters and our localisation,” he added. “Some will create linear challenges. Some will give programming hours. Some will have digital integration. It will be not a one-size-fits all. It will be different for every territory.”

As with any new product launch, the success of the US version of the Olympic Channel will depend largely upon garnering adequate engagement and buy-in from American audiences. Indeed, it is not yet clear whether anyone will actually watch the channel, which comes at a time when media companies and consumers are generally gravitating towards newer digital offerings rather than traditional linear ones. Given that Nielsen will not track viewership data and ratings from the outset, initial take-up may not be known publicly for some time.

Still, getting the channel up and running with distribution in 35 million-plus households just seven months after its creation was announced is a success in itself. Now, the three parties involved have their work cut out to revitalise the Olympic brand of sport in the industry’s largest media market, a place where viewership for the Olympic Games has been steadily declining over the past few editions - as NBC knows only too well.

“This partnership with NBC and the USOC is already successful,” insisted Parkman, “and we are creating a media entity together here in the US and the ultimate success will be how we attract viewers, how we grow participation in sport, grow promotion of the Games, and it’s a metric that we’ll be analysing over the course of the next four or five years to ensure that what we’ve done is create a very valuable asset for the Olympic movement.”