The U.S. Olympic Committee's aggressive plan to start its own cable network is moving forward, though officials are giving no indications that the network will be on the air before the Beijing Olympics, as the federation had once hoped.
The USOC has secured rights to televise events from more than half the individual sports, but the strategy of bringing them to air has been slow to develop and nobody inside the organization's offices has been willing to provide specifics.
"I can't comment on it now," chief operating officer Norm Bellingham, who is in charge of the TV project, told The Associated Press this week at the USOC board meeting.
The idea was hatched two years ago and given a working title, the U.S. Olympic Sports Network. The plan was to air live events and archival footage, along with a few shows that mix sports and lifestyle topics.
The goal was to increase exposure for Olympic sports, many of which are quickly forgotten once the Olympics end. There was also a long-term hope of making the Olympics a more valuable commodity when negotiations for future network contracts come up. NBC owns the American TV rights through 2012 (at the cost of $2 billion total for 2010 and 2012), and the timetable for bidding for 2014 and beyond has not yet been announced.
Those are still the plans, but the USOC would not say whether its network will be on the air prior to the Beijing Olympics, which are less than three months away.
"The honest answer is, a lot is going on and a lot of work is being done, but we're not in any place to give adjectives," chairman Peter Ueberroth said. "We can't say how it looks, how it doesn't look, whether it's close or not close. We're just working hard."
Like any newcomer trying to find a spot on the ever-expanding dial, the USOC is looking at three options: Starting its own network, acquiring another, or leasing blocks of time on an existing network for so-called "USOC" days.
Starting a network is doable, especially if there's plenty of content available, but getting clearance on cable and satellite systems across the country is no guarantee, as the recent and well-publicized fighting between the NFL Network and providers has shown.
Buying an existing network would be expensive; deals to buy well-known cable networks and their assets can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. And even if that network had a spot in current cable and satellite lineups, there's no guarantee that spot would be held for the new USOC entity.
Leasing time might be the most viable option for the USOC, though that wouldn't necessarily serve the purpose of creating an easily identifiable, one-stop outlet for Olympic programming.
No matter what the format, the USOC will be in for the same struggle as any network in this era: Finding an audience -- one that's loyal, if not necessarily huge.
"We're taking the challenge for any marketer or TV entity, which is to find a way to get fragmented audiences that exist today and get them together," CEO Jim Scherr said, in talking about the plan in 2006.
Speaking about the project again this week, Scherr said the goal remains the same.
"We're still pursuing it. It's still on the table. We're still working at it and going forward," Scherr said.
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