- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 4, 2004

The power of sports to improve ratings for other TV programming has been blunted in recent months. Just look at Fox’s disaster last fall with the much-hyped but short-lived “Skin” for evidence of that.

But the Outdoor Life Network, airing this month’s Tour de France, is nonetheless looking for big things from what many call the most grueling event in sports.

The Comcast-owned cable network, seen in nearly 60million homes and otherwise known for generally obscure hunting and fishing programs and action sports, will air a record 340 hours of the 2,106-mile bicycle race. The enhanced coverage will include not only live race footage, seen during the early morning on the U.S. East Coast, but an expanded analysis and features during prime-time each night and a new show called “The Roadside Tour” in which reporter Kirsten Gum will showcase the race from a fan’s perspective.

OLN has trumpeted its coverage with a massive advertising campaign, valued at more than $20million, and even coined a new word, “Cyclysm,” that it hopes to raise to catchphrase status. The network’s enthusiasm has been buttressed by the entry of several top-tier sponsors, such as Nike, AOL Broadband and Infiniti.

“We have a lot of great events, but the tour is our crown jewel,” OLN president Gavin Harvey said. “This year is really something special that transcends the sport and in fact sports in general because of the epic nature of what could be achieved this year by Lance Armstrong. We think this is going to be the biggest year ever for the tour. And for OLN’s coverage of it.”

Last year’s coverage of Armstrong’s fifth consecutive tour win drew an average of 1.2million viewers a day to OLN, more than twice the viewership in 2002. Advertising revenue surged by 75 percent. Network executives this year are aiming for an average of more than 2 million viewers a day.

Of course, Armstrong — and his quest for an unprecedented sixth straight victory — provides a double-edged sword for OLN executives. Armstrong’s bid, arriving amid the backdrop of relentless but unsubstantiated drug charges, gives OLN a ready and compelling story line to attract the most casual sports fans.

But if Armstrong falters quickly, viewer tune-out will be extensive, similar to what has happened in recent years at golf tournaments in which Tiger Woods fails to contend.

“Certainly we wouldn’t be honest with ourselves if we didn’t realize that the event would take a ratings hit if Lance, you know, got knocked, got injured or left early,” said Mark Fein, OLN senior vice president of programming and production.

Even without an Armstrong disaster, his racing strategy and the makeup of this year’s course make an early lead by him unlikely. The mountain stages, Armstrong’s specialty, are back-loaded almost exclusively to the last week of the tour.

“I don’t really expect to see Lance holding a leading position in these first few days of the tour,” said Phil Liggett, longtime cycling commentator and an OLN analyst for the event. “So we might not mention him [during the first week] other than to tell you where he is in the overall standings.”

The Tour de France also presents one of the most logistically challenging events in sports to televise. Tour cycling, of course, is not neatly confined to a building or circular course like nearly every other major sport. And that means completely resetting camera positions and establishing new audio and video feeds every day for three tough weeks.

“We equate this to basically moving the Super Bowl,” said John Carter, OLN vice president of event production. “There’s as many broadcasters, if not more, than you would see at any major sporting event, [such as] World Cup soccer or the Super Bowl. And every broadcaster does the same thing, picking up, moving 200 kilometers to the next finish line. And doing it all over again the following day.”

OLN will use its prime-time tour programming as a lead-in to debut three new shows: “Outside Magazine’s Ultimate Top Ten,” “Saturn’s Gravity Files,” and “Countdown Courage 25.” The programming, while still of its own topical ilk, moves OLN more toward the rest of cable TV, in which list-oriented shows and personality profiles hold great favor.

“We sort of snicker a little bit if we’re called the Lance network,” Harvey said. “People are going to say that, but we think it’s just good management to make sure we capitalize on Lance’s popularity.”

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