NBC Sports Network will take Olympic-size steps with the London Games this summer.
NBCUniversal's national cable sports network will join NBC as the centerpieces of the programmer's Olympic Games coverage from July 27 to August 12.
"NBC Sports Network will have more hours of Olympic coverage than any cable network has ever had," NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus told Multichannel News in an interview last week. While scheduling is still being finalized, NBC Sports Network could present as many as 300 hours from London, according to NBC Sports Group officials.
Moreover, NBC Sports Network -- which just completed its first quarter under that banner following its rebranding from Versus on Jan. 2 and an extensive programming revamp that has initially shed viewers -- will assume the role USA Network played dating back to the Athens Games in 2004.
"NBC Sports Network will be the home for U.S. team sports," said Lazarus, noting that all of the domestic men's and women's basketball games (save for the finals, which will air on NBC), women's soccer, volleyball, field hockey and water polo, among others, will air on the service. "There's a lot of content, all with a view toward driving viewership to the NBC broadcasts in primetime."
Viewers can expect to see the NBC Sports Network-Olympic logo on the service's air, starting April 18.
Lazarus also notes that NBC Sports Network will be home to plenty of Olympic Trials fare in the months ahead, a move that will not only enhance its programming lineup, but promote the upcoming Games.
In addition to linear coverage on other NBCU networks, as well as extensive action, athlete profiles and other information on NBCOlympics.com, distributors can expect dedicated basketball and soccer channels, airing international team contests, and video-on-demand content. "It's really for them to build and serve their audiences," said Lazarus.
He said that NBC Sports Group is working with parent Comcast and other distributors on VOD: "Whatever we do with Comcast we will make that available, as part of our obligations, to other affiliates. "
When it comes to the Games, London won't be NBC Sports Network's only calling card. Lazarus said the network will be "an important part of the Olympic puzzle" throughout the decade, as NBCU, via a $4.4 billion bid for a quartet of quadrennials, holds Games' rights until 2020.
"The Olympics will raise the collective consciousness of NBC Sports Network among both hardcore and casual sports fans, which is what we're trying to do every day," said Lazarus. "The Olympics is one of the last true gathering moments in the media landscape. It will serve as tool to show that NBC Sports Network is a valuable service, one that viewers, distributors and marketers should care about."
Not as many people gathered to watch the network during the first quarter. Despite improving the production values across its telecasts and increasing the level of news/information through programming involving Emmy-winner Bob Costas and its daily "SportsTalk" franchise, NBC Sports Network sustained 14% and 16% declines in its total-day and primetime audiences, respectively, in the first quarter.
The decline was not unexpected in the executive suite, as the network -- which has enacted a five-year plan aimed at adding rights and buttressing its position in the daily sport analysis space -- revamped 40% of its programming lineup, including a reduction in popular outdoor fare.
"This is a less is more strategy. Our ratings may be down, but our business is better and we're building the foundation. We think our advertisers and distributors will tell you we're doing some interesting things," said Lazarus, noting the channel rang up its best-ever first quarter on Madison Avenue and has lifted its subscriber base by 4 million to just under 80 million homes.
With a monthly subscriber license fee now in the 30-cent range, the network -- Lazarus calls it "a stretch goal" -- could count 90 million subs by 2015.
In the meantime, NBC Sports Group is anticipating a sizable Nielsen uptick with the upcoming 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs. Under the $2 billion, 10-year deal with the National Hockey League, NBC Sports Network and NBC, with an assist from CNBC and NHL Network, will offer exclusive national coverage of every contest from the second round forward. (Regional sports networks were still in that round's rights mix last year, ringing up significant ratings). Lazarus also said that bringing ad sales under NBCU's roof has lit more budget lamps.
Overall, Lazarus, noting the service is in the initial stage of its long-range plan, is confident that NBC Sports Network is proceeding on the right path.
"We have to put programming on NBC Sports Network that people care about. Regular-season and exclusive playoff hockey, people care about. Major League Soccer, Tour de France and the Izod Indy Car series, people care about. The Olympic Games people care about," he said. "As we put all the pieces together, things they can't find anywhere else, and build daily relevant programming around it, we'll build value."