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OLN Facing Up to the Post-Lance Cycle

7/28/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

Gavin Harvey's favorite moment from the 2005 Tour de France came along the Champs-Elysees, about an hour after the race ended.

A few gendarmes and stragglers from the throng still lined the Tour's triumphant thoroughfare. As the president of OLN walked down the boulevard with his wife and vice president of programming Marc Fein, they passed team champion T-Mobile. A quarter mile down the boulevard, they spotted Team Discovery taking a lap. A yellow jersey-clad Lance Armstrong rolled past, within 10 feet of the remaining spectators.

Up close to the champion, Harvey pondered: “He's on a quiet ride down his final stage. What's he thinking? Will he roll this way again on his own? And then I thought: The Tour goes on.”

GRAND FINALE

OLN and cycling's biggest competition will be without Armstrong next July, as he ended his career with an unprecedented seven titles, all in succession. Armstrong's grand finale pushed the network to new heights.

The Comcast Corp.-owned service netted a 2.08 household rating for its live coverage July 24 from 8:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. on the U.S. East Coast, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

The average of 1.7 million average viewers made it the most-watched telecast in the net's 10 years.

There were other glories that day — reality series acquisition Survivor premiered, helping OLN score its best total-day mark of a 0.67 household rating and 560,895 viewers on average from 7. a.m. to 3 a.m.

Overall, the 2005 tour registered a 17% rise in gross household rating to a 2.26 for 23 days of coverage.

Moreover, OLN sold all of its Tour inventory during the network's upfront, drafting many new sponsors.

But OLN can't rest on that success: It has been preparing for life without Lance since before the 2004 Tour.

“We knew [Armstrong] was going to leave soon, so the idea was to position the Tour as an important, colossal sporting event in its own right that would not only attract cycling enthusiasts, but general-market sports fans,” Harvey said.

BUILDING RIVALRIES

OLN's game plan was rooted in “demystifying the sport of cycling. We wanted to make it more accessible, for people to understand the rules and strategies,” he said.

OLN this tour also placed more emphasis on other racers and rivals.

All of this has been done with an eye toward making the Tour stand on its own within the sports landscape.

“We want people to think and get excited in July about The Tour just like they do with Wimbledon and the British Open — that they will watch whether the leader is an Australian, Italian or German,” said Harvey.

But U.S. representation doesn't hurt. This year, for the first time, OLN posted an American leader board.

“Having David Zabriskie win early stages drew interest,” said Harvey. “American cycling is in a very good position. To finish in the top 20 is quite an accomplishment.”

Four Yanks made that grade in 2005.

Nevertheless, OLN wants to be realistic about expectations in the absence of Armstrong, the cycling champion, cancer survivor, father and international icon, whose girlfriend is rocker Sheryl Crow.

“He's certainly someone who transcends cycling and sports,” he said.

As such, OLN is girding for “a couple of scenarios of erosion,” shaped initially by a post-mortem in the next weeks of its production and marketing of the 2005 event.

In October, OLN will map out the new tour route for 2006 that will be charted by Amaury Sport Organisation, through which OLN holds Tour rights through 2008.

More emphasis will be placed on Cyclism Sunday, a weekly review show that includes same-day coverage of key spring events like Giro d'Italia and Tour de Georgia. Viewers also can expect some “road to the Tour” shows.

OLN expects continued subscriber growth and Nielsen gains from the Professional Bull Riding circuit and original programming like All-Star BBQ Showdown (a 0.63 for its debut) and Outdoor Investigations (0.53 for a series best) that performed well last month.

“If we're really coming off a strong June (2006), we can mitigate erosion,” Harvey claims.

By that time, observers also will have a much stronger read on where the outdoor adventure network is heading.

Adding to its tent pole events, OLN last week acquired the rights to the America's Cup in 2007. OLN will also expand its sailing fare to include the Louis Vuitton Cup and a number of qualifying regattas leading up to the America's Cup.

'SURVIVOR': GREAT EXPERIMENT

By next June will also have a firmer read on what Survivor has added to the mix. Calling it the “great experiment in serialized reality,” Harvey said “it's way too early” to take anything away from its first few airings.

The July 24 debut scored a 0.92 household rating in the 45 minute-commercial-free telecast right after Armstrong's last ride, the highest-rated non-Tour programming ever for OLN. Subsequent Survivor airings at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. that day pulled in 0.22 and 0.5 household ratings marks, respectively. The latter was OLN's highest ever in late-night. From July 25-27, officials said OLN recorded a 144% household upturn at 7 p.m. and a 77% bump in its 10 p.m. time slot. Male delivery is way up, which Harvey views as a positive since the show's CBS runs skew more female.

Harvey declined to comment about reports of OLN perhaps evolving into a much broader service should Comcast acquire rights to the National Hockey League and/or the late-season Thursday/Saturday night package of National Football League games.

Lance's Last Look
OLN scored gains across key metrics with its 23 days of coverage of the 2005 Tour de France last month. The network pedaled its way to a best-ever 2.08 household mark on July 24 from 8:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. as Lance Armstrong completed his final triumphant run.
Source: Nielsen Media Research data.
2004 2005 Change
Gross Household Rating 1.93 2.26 17%
Average Viewers 1.48M 1.76M 19%
Live Telecast Ratings 0.62 0.79 27%
Average Viewers 458,684 607,250 32%
Primetime Ratings 0.46 0.53 15%
Average Viewers 383,513 434,850 13%

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