Networks Say They’ll Play Pat Hands

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While acknowledging the formidable competition posed by the event, cable networks are not in awe of NBC’s Olympics coverage and will compete for ratings gold with their regularly scheduled programming.

Network executives are confident that their current primetime fare will provide ample choice for viewers seeking a respite from NBC’s 226 hours of coverage from Athens — much of it packaged and story-driven — to air from Aug. 13 to 29.

As the Olympics attract more women than typical sports programming, Lifetime Television will look to appeal to non-female sports fans by offering two weeks of movies in primetime, said Lifetime executive vice president of research Tim Brooks.

The network’s August 13-30 “TV Movie Gold” stunt, featuring original and acquired films nightly from 7 to 11 p.m., will pre-empt its weekend original-series runs of Missing, Wild Card and Strong Medicine.

'GAIL DEVERS’ TO RUN

The schedule includes Run for the Dream: The Gail Devers Story, about the Olympic track star, as well as Lifetime original telepics We Were the Mulvaneys, Video Voyeur and Killer Instinct.

Brooks said the network’s movie plan has proven to be a successful counterprogramming ploy against past Summer Games. In 2000, the network replaced its scheduled Unsolved Mysteries series with movies against the Olympics from Sydney, Australia, and actually increased its ratings by 2% over the prior four weeks.

“We did pretty well, especially relative to our competition, against the big, bad Olympics,” Brooks said. “The best thing to do when you’re up against very highly promoted, attention-getting competition is usually to do the things that you’re well-known for, as opposed to things that you have to tell people about, because the noise is just too great to shout over.”

Although the service is not officially billing it as Olympics counterprogramming, Food Network will look to draw viewers the week of Aug. 15 to 21 with a “Fiery Foods” primetime block.

SPICY MEALS

The specials, beginning at 9 p.m. each night, will unwrap hot and spicy foods from such series as Unwrapped, BBQ With Bobby Flay, Iron Chef and Good Eats, said Food Network executives.

Cartoon Network spinoff Boomerang is playing off the Games’ opening weekend with Scooby’s All-Star Laff-a-Lympics, a 72-hour marathon of the 1970s Saturday-morning toon, from August 13 to 15. The stunt features 45 Hanna-Barbera characters competing in an array of sporting events in search of “Laff-a-Lympic” gold, the network said.

But for the most part, networks are sticking to their regular lineups to provide alternatives to the Olympics. Distaff-aimed Oxygen and WE: Women’s Entertainment are not deploying any major programming stunts against the Games.

And given the strength of cable’s summer primetime content, most executives feel confident that cable can hold its own against NBC.

“The very nature of HGTV’s programming is counter programming to the Olympics,” said Home & Garden Television senior vice president of programming Michael Dingley.

'L&O’ AND 'MOTHMAN’

Top-rated Turner Network Television will continue to air its daily dosage of Law & Order in primetime against the Olympics, along with drama-targeted, action movies like The Mothman Prophecies, said TNT officials.

The network will also provide National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) Nextel Cup races on Aug. 15 and 22, as well as a prime time NASCAR race on Aug. 28, according to network executives.

Even with the Games, network executives expect to experience very little Nielsen drop-off.

Moreover, it’s unlikely that the Olympics will help broadcast close the ratings gap against what has historically been basic cable’s strongest season.

In 2000, the Sydney Olympics helped the seven broadcast networks register a 46.7 audience share and hurdle over cable’s 44.3 mark for the third quarter of that year.

Last year, cable scored a 54.3 to 38.2 share win in the third quarter.

Through the first three weeks of the current quarter, basic cable has rung up a 58.7 share, versus 33.7, according to a Turner Entertainment Research analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

Consequently, it would be very difficult for the networks to catch cable even with an incredibly strong Olympics performance, according to Turner Broadcasting System Inc. chief research officer Jack Wakshlag.

UNIVERSAL APPEAL

Of course, several NBC Universal-owned cable networks will showcase Olympics programming of their own.

USA Network will feature 49 hours of mostly daytime Olympics programming, including coverage of men’s and women’s basketball games, cycling and tennis, while MSNBC will run 133.5 hours of Olympics coverage, including softball, soccer, beach volleyball, wrestling, canoeing, basketball, rowing, weightlifting and boxing.

CNBC will run 111 hours of Olympics programming, highlighting boxing from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. (ET). On weekends, it will offer expanded live coverage of beach volleyball, soccer and tae kwon do.

Bravo will cover smaller niche sports such as sailing, track cycling, archery, badminton, judo, synchronized swimming, handball, table tennis and equestrian events, in addition to tennis.

Spanish-language Telemundo will run 169.5 hours of coverage, marking the first time a U.S. network has covered the Games in Spanish.

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