By Eddie Pells
The Associated Press
DENVER — The U.S. Olympic Committee’s venture into the TV business is irritating some international Olympic leaders — not exactly the reaction the Americans were expecting when they decided to create a network solely devoted to promoting the movement.
The USOC unveiled details Wednesday of the network it is forming with Comcast. The announcement came two days after International Olympic Committee television director Timo Lumme sent the USOC a letter warning that the federation might not receive all the clearance it wanted for programming and naming rights.
Among the IOC’s chief concerns are how the new network will affect the IOC and USOC’s relationship with NBC, which televises the Olympics in the United States and puts more money into the movement than any single company.
“We’re saying we should have sat down before they did anything unilaterally,” IOC TV negotiator Richard Carrion said in an interview with The New York
The USOC leadership, meanwhile, had no intention of antagonizing the IOC, with which it has a touchy relationship that has become more relevant with Chicago vying to host the 2016 Olympics.
Nor did the USOC want to turn this into a rivalry with NBC.
“They’re the best of the best, period,” former chairman Peter Ueberroth said.
USOC leaders sounded content on debuting their network modestly after the Vancouver Olympics, with a steady diet of archival footage, news shows and small sports coverage — nothing that would cut into NBC’s array of Olympic programming.
Still, chief operating officer Norman Bellingham conceded that eventually the new network could be in competition with NBC and its partner, Universal Sports, most notably after 2012, when NBC’s contracts to air Olympic trials expire.
The USOC negotiated with NBC and its partners in trying to bring the Olympic network to air, but they couldn’t reach an agreement. Bellingham said the IOC has long been aware of the USOC’s intentions to start a new network, something he and others at the USOC have been talking about publicly for nearly three years.
Of the IOC complaints, he said, “to say they caught us by surprise is an understatement.”
“We firmly believe that what we’re doing with this network is in the best interest of the Olympic movement,” Bellingham said. “This is something that’s going to deliver great value to them. It speaks to the ideals of the movement. There’s nothing out there that does that on a year-round basis.”
At least one IOC member agreed. Dick Pound of Canada, the former lead negotiator for American TV rights, said his country has also been looking to bring a 24-7 network to air.
“I can’t imagine that would be any concern for the IOC other than to say, ‘Hey, this is great,'” Pound said. “It’s more exposure for the Olympic movement. Looking at it in utilitarian terms, it will probably enhance the value of the Olympic rights.”
NBC spokesman Brian Walker said network executives were traveling and not available for comment. NBC intends to bid for the 2014 and 2016 Games. Because of the shaky economy, the bidding has been delayed until after the 2016 Games are awarded in October.
Though Olympic trials would likely be the most lucrative of events the USOC network could air, Ueberroth insisted there’s another mission, which is to expose younger people to sports that are out of the mainstream, and in turn help create healthier lifestyles and keep the Olympic pipeline flowing.
All noble gestures, though in the end, it figures programming, timing and finances will make or break the network.
Many Olympic leaders were growing impatient as the process to bring the network online dragged out over nearly three years. Some wondered if there was any way to make it
Others, including some at the IOC, wondered how it would affect the relationship with NBC. Still others wondered where the viewers are going to come from. Most Olympic sports have extremely dedicated — but extremely small — fan bases.
None of those questions have been answered yet, nor are there any specific answers on how many people the network will reach.
The USOC partnered with Comcast, which will carry the channel on its basic digital tiers, with hopes to expand to other cable partners in the future. That should reach at least 10 million homes to start.
They are modeling it after the MLB Network, a staple on basic tiers of several cable
companies, which in exchange for making it widely available got partial ownership of the
“I think it’s fair to say that we’re intending for this network to have far greater distribution than only the Comcast ‘Digital One’ tier,” Bellingham said.