By Lee Alan Hill
Six years ago the Outdoor Life Network approached the organizers of the venerable Tour de France with a proposition: Take a chance on a relatively small U.S. cable network and in return, the grandp%E9;re of cycling competitions would get live coverage of its event in the largest TV market in the world.
That gamble has paid off for all concerned. The first weekend of Tour de France coverage, July 2-3, drew the largest OLN audience ever-418,735 average total viewers and a weekend average of a .48 HH rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. The cumulative 1.5 million viewers for the weekend represented a 77 percent spike in total viewers over the opening weekend in 2004, further validating OLN’s claim that it is “The Home of Professional Cycling.”
“We went live with much of the coverage [65 hours’ worth] because it’s there and because we can,” said John Carter, OLN’s VP of production and executive producer of the Tour de France programming.
“The Tour de France is one of the most challenging TV projects there is logistically,” Mr. Carter added. “By analogy, it’s like having a Super Bowl where you pick up and move to the next game on a daily basis, because that’s what we have to do. We move to the next stage on the Tour every night.”
The gross viewership figures are also significant to OLN and Tour de France advertisers because OLN has sold the coverage on gross audience.
OLN executives freely admit their Nielsen numbers have been buoyed by the celebrity of American Lance Armstrong, who went into the 2005 Tour de France seeking his record seventh consecutive victory. Much of the programming build during the year focused on Mr. Armstrong’s personal tale of overcoming cancer before becoming the most successful cyclist in Tour history.
Cycling has been part of OLN’s programming almost since its debut as a network in 1995. The first event it owned and operated as a network was the Lincoln Navigator Tour of the Rockies in 1997.
In May 1999 OLN picked up the Giro d’Italia cycling race for the first time, and with the addition of the Vuelta a Espa%F1;a in August 2000, and then the Tour de France in July 2001, OLN now can boast it covers the three Grand Tours of the sport.
This year OLN dedicated an unprecedented 320 hours to the Tour and, in an attempt to broaden its appeal, took a different approach with its coverage.
“We used to super-serve the core audience of riders,” said Marc Fein, senior VP of programming and production. This time, OLN wanted to walk the proverbial fence between serving the enthusiasts and also entertaining and informing the relative novice to the sport.
“We realized that we had to appeal to those who had interest but did not ride themselves,” Mr. Fein added. “We devised a great marketing campaign to tell our viewers about the cyclists and cycling, that this was the epic summer event you cannot miss.”
OLN assembled a team of commentators that included Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen doing the race coverage and Bob Roll doing color. Mr. Liggett, who has reported on cycling for 10 Olympiads, took on his 33rd Tour de France. Mr. Sherwen raced in the Tour de France seven times from 1978-85 and has covered the event since 1987.
Mr. Roll is a member of the Cycling Hall of Fame and a four-time Tour de France racer. He is the co-author with Dan Koeppel of “The Tour de France Companion 2005.” “We do find we have to educate [the viewers] on the riders-who they are,” said Mr. Liggett, who has been with OLN since it began covering the Tour de France in 2001.
“The audience wants a deeper knowledge,” he added. “Surely, Lance is the best story in any sport this year and for many years, but interest in cycling is increasing in America. There are, of course, the enthusiasts, but I was in Philadelphia for the U.S. Professional Championship in June and they got a million people out to watch at least part of the competition.”
For Mr. Roll’s part, he sees what he does as “giving the audience a template. We give them basic knowledge of cycling and the Tour, the stats, and of course, how Lance fits into this.”
Mr. Liggett and Mr. Roll acknowledge the grueling pace of covering the Tour, for weeks moving on a daily basis from finish line to finish line of the various stages of the race. They rarely reach the hotel room before late at night, and even provide coverage on their rest days. For Mr. Carter and his team, the actual race coverage is the culmination of an effort that began the previous October, when the Tour de France disclosed its routes, which change every year.
At that point, the OLN team traveled to France to drive the course and begin plans. Mr. Carter made several more trips to the country before the entire crew was assembled, about 10 days before the start of the event.
“However brutal it is for us,” he said, “it is more brutal for the riders. Cyclists assess another rider’s weaknesses and take advantage of them. But for the audience it is a sport that mirrors life-the struggles and adversities, and you’re really on your own. I think the audience connects with that.”
While Mr. Roll admitted that covering the event can be exhausting, he said it is also a chance to “participate in a sport that is so culturally significant in Europe and to do it while experiencing the countryside, the food, the people. There’s nothing better.”
Boosting the Lineup
For OLN, the Tour de France coverage is also an attraction meant to build its upcoming programming, including the newly acquired “Survivor” episodes, which were scheduled to premiere July 24, immediately following the completion of the cycling coverage.
“The Tour is a showcase for us, no doubt about it,” Mr. Carter said. “It’s a chance to show people who we are as a network. Many are coming to us for the first time. We can also promote what’s coming next-The Gravity Games start the following Saturday and Sunday.” OLN plans to keep the sport as a staple on the network’s Sunday night lineup after the Tour de France, which was to end July 24.
“OLN is committed to cycling in a big way,” Mr. Carter added.
“We know that the presence of Lance Armstrong does help 110 percent in attracting an audience,” Mr. Fein said. “But the success of the games is also a large part good execution.
“There will be a time when Lance Armstrong is no longer in the Tour de France,” he said. “And maybe the ratings will take a dip, as all ratings for all sports do from time to time. But we think long term it will grow, and OLN has made the commitment to both the Tour and cycling events as part of what we offer.”
Tour de France on OLN
Days of coverage: 23, from July 2-24
Hours of live coverage: 65
Total hours of coverage: 320
Crew size: 45
Number of cameras: 10 (six exclusive to OLN, four shared)