In Depth

A Sports Menu for Digital Channels

NBC’s Universal Sports Aims to Fill Stations’ Subchannels

Among the programming options being developed for television stations with subchannel space to fill due to the digital transition is one geared specifically to NBC affiliates.

It packages thousands of hours of sports competitions that eventually lead to the Olympics, the jewel in the crown of NBC Sports and a boon to NBC affiliates.

Universal Sports, a 24/7 digital channel created by NBC Universal and World Championship Sports Network, is expected to be available to 30 million homes in early 2009.

Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics and executive VP of strategic partnerships, believes there is enough interest to comfortably support that projection.

The new digital channel, already a multicast subchannel carried by the 10 NBC-owned stations in major markets, is available to upwards of 23.3 million homes. Some 14 million of those are cable homes. Of the remainder, many are not yet watching over-the-air digital TV. The over-the-air audience is not yet quantifiable, which makes ad sales difficult.

That makes cable homes crucial to the Universal Sports plan.

Universal Sports, which was offered to the NBC stations early last summer, is a different beast than NBC Weather Plus, which was a joint venture with stations. NBC Weather Plus, which lasted four years, is being dissolved in the wake of NBC Universal’s acquisition of the Weather Channel. With the exit of Weather Plus by the end of this year, many NBC affiliates will have a subchannel to fill.

Instead, stations that carry Universal Sports are allotted advertising time they can sell and local programming time they can fill with infomercials or local sports-related material on the digital channel. The terms include five minutes per hour for local advertising and seven hours per week for infomercials or local sports content.

The satellite-delivered channel would be free to the local stations through 2011. Under the contract, stations must launch Universal Sports within 90 days and guarantee cable carriage in their markets by Jan. 31, 2009.

If an affiliate can’t secure cable carriage, the network is free to line up another station in the market that can. Mr. Zenkel said there has been interest expressed in some markets by stations, and even station groups, not affiliated with NBC.

NBC Universal has held off for months making outside deals because the goal is to try “to get as deeply distributed across the NBC affiliate base as we possibly can,” Mr. Zenkel said.
The initial timetable gave affiliates until Dec. 1 to agree to carry Universal Sports. If they declined to do so, the channel could be offered to other stations in the same market. However, Mr. Zenkel described that timeline as a “loose deadline.”

“We are continuing to talk to them. There are some issues that are being worked on between NBC and the affiliates,” Mr. Zenkel said, declining to elaborate.

While the NBC executive said the process is somewhat slow, he believes the proposal represents a match made in branding and synergistic heaven.

Michael Fiorile, president and chief operating officer of the Dispatch Printing Co., which owns NBC affiliate WTHR-TV in Indianapolis, agrees. After looking at other subchannel offerings, he decided Universal Sports is “a natural” for Indianapolis. The city has five pro sports franchises, the Indiana Motor Speedway and a reputation as “the amateur sports capital of the world.”

As president and chairman of the NBC TV affiliate board, Mr. Fiorile said Universal Sports will be discussed at the next board meeting, but that the board has not endorsed the channel and cannot bind affiliates to carry it.

Olympic Archives

Carrying Universal Sports makes a station the exclusive local distributor of Olympics-related competitions outside the Games themselves. In addition to more than 5,000 archival programming hours per year, the channel will schedule more than 2,400 hours of live championship events and complete seasons of all the Olympic sports and live Olympic trials.

NBCU will carry the ball on marketing and promotion, loading plugs for Universal Sports on the NBC Sports Web sites and into such events as the 90-minute network special on the Paralympics Games held in Beijing after the Olympics concluded. Some 25 hours of Paralympics coverage has run on Universal Sports.

When it comes to sending people back and forth between NBC Sports programming and related programming on Universal Sports, Mr. Zenkel said, “We’re starting to find something of a rhythm.”