NEW YORK – While too early in the morning for a torch lighting, a new television network designed to highlight Olympic sports and American athletes chasing gold medal dreams is set to debut Saturday.
The Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA network launches at 6 a.m. ET in some 35 million American homes with NBC's Mike Tirico previewing the live sports, archival footage and documentaries that will make up most of its programming. The show will repeat several times over the weekend for those sleeping in.
World championships in track and field, swimming and diving and beach volleyball will fill considerable airtime during the infant network's first two months. A lengthy tribute to the 1992 United States "Dream Team" in men's basketball will lead into Labor Day.
The launch comes at a time of cord-cutting and contraction in the cable business; NBC Universal shuttered its Esquire network earlier this year. But NBC Universal is sharing costs and control with the International Olympic Committee and United States Olympic Committee, although representatives wouldn't outline how that responsibility is divided. The network's unwieldy name is to avoid confusion with the IOC's digital Olympic Channel.
Multiple ownership situations can also be unwieldy in creative operations. But promoting the Olympics is the IOC's and USOC's business. NBC Universal also wants to build interest in the Olympics because it has the rights to broadcast summer and winter Games through 2032.
Many fans follow Olympic sports and athletes for only a couple of weeks every four years.
"The Olympic Games will now have a home between these Games being played," Tirico said.
A big part of the network's appeal for NBC is to give viewers the chance to build relationships with athletes as they qualify for the games, said Jim Bell, executive producer of NBC's Olympics telecasts.
The Dream Team programming is expected to be a draw. Over eight nights, the new Olympic channel will fully air the games played by the team that featured Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing and other Hall of Famers. The games were such blowouts, with USA never winning by less than 30 points, that NBC never televised all of them in full when they happened.
A 2012 documentary on the team will be featured and the games will be rebroadcast in a Labor Day marathon.
Operators are also setting a goal of establishing a sports documentary franchise along the lines of ESPN's "30 for 30." One film already in the works is about Cuban boxers.
The new network has access to archival footage for most past Olympics. There are exceptions for Olympics footage owned by ABC from the 1970s and 1980s — meaning the channel would have to strike a deal if it wanted to air "Miracle on Ice" footage from the 1980 Lake Placed Olympics, for example.
Bell said he didn't expect NBC will need to hire new on-air talent for the network, which will only be available digitally to cable and satellite customers who get the channel. It's unclear at this point how the network will fit into NBC's coverage of next winter's games in South Korea.