IOC Plans Year-Round TV Channel to Appeal to Young Fans

Olympic officials say it’s the right time for a $600 million gamble.

Concerned about an aging television audience for the games, the authorities are working on a channel aimed at young people. The proposal was first made in 1994 by Thomas Bach, who took over the presidency of the International Olympic Committee in September 2013.

IOC executives in December agreed to spend $600 million over seven years on the year-round channel, and its executives will get a progress report at a three-day meeting in Rio de Janeiro that starts Thursday. The organization has reserves of about $980 million.

“We need to take some risks and it’s better to take risks now because we’re stronger than we’ve ever been,” Yiannis Exarchos, who is overseeing the project, said in an interview.

The channel will focus on athletes, as the IOC’s regular broadcast partners provide coverage of live competition, according to Exarchos. He is chief executive officer of Olympic Broadcasting Services, which provides live streams to TV stations during the games.

“The personalities of athletes, their lifestyles, are something very, very attractive,” Exarchos said. The new channel’s programs might be “edgier” than would be expected from the IOC, Exarchos added.

Bach, now 61, was largely ignored when he originally suggested a channel as an IOC junior officer. The German lawyer and former fencing champion faces a challenge in trying to make Olympic sports -- which include Greco-Roman wrestling and ski-shooting hybrid biathlon -- more popular with young people, according to Ian Henry, professor at the Center for Olympic Studies and Research at the U.K.’s Loughborough University.

Younger Audiences

“The audience for the games has been getting older and that’s a key concern for the IOC,” Henry said. “But what remains to be seen is whether they can find a key place in the market -- it’s a crowded market.”

The Olympic channel, which will start before the 2016 Rio Games, will begin on the Internet and look to share content with TV stations, Exarchos said.

Targeting web users will be more effective in capturing a young audience, said Ed Barton, a television analyst at London-based market researcher Ovum. A trial online stream of the 2014 Sochi Games was so popular in Finland it stressed network capacity during ice hockey and cross-country skiing.

Television Rights

On broadcast television, the audience is aging. The median age of U.S. viewers for the Sochi Games was 55, compared to 48 during the 2002 event in Salt Lake City, according to Horizon Media. Even so, NBC last May agreed to pay $7.65 billion to extend its U.S. rights to the Olympics for 12 years through

2032.

In 1994, Bach told the IOC’s centennial congress in Paris that the organization should protect its values against “fast-food entertainment” by producing and broadcasting its own programming, according to a copy of the speaking notes he provided.

“At the time, some just didn’t understand, others thought the idea was perhaps a little bit ahead of its time and some even thought I was perhaps a little mad,” Bach said in an e-mail. “Sadly the suggestion slowly faded away.”

The channel will hire about 100 production and technical staff and be broadcast from Madrid, where Olympic Broadcasting Services is based, Exarchos said. It may break even within a decade, the IOC said.

Expanding Access

“The biggest cost for a modern sports channel is almost always in the rights deals,” Barton said. “‘So given that they’ll be relying on their own rights, it doesn’t sound unfeasible.”

Sports federations say they like the idea, but want more information about how it will help them.

“How much are they going to push it?” Gordon Templeman, director of commercial operations and communications of United World Wrestling, said from Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland. “We’re trying to find a formula where we can increase exposure of our sport in between games.”

Amid declining interest in wrestling, the IOC said in 2013 it would drop the ancient sport from the 2020 Games, only to reverse the decision after a furor from countries including the U.S., Russia and Iran.

Biathlon, little-known outside Europe, already has web-based television with as many as 100,000 viewers with clips on the training and social lives of athletes, according to Peer Lange, a spokesman for the Salzburg, Austria-based International Biathlon Union.

Bolder Approach

Bach says his 1994 idea is “as compelling as ever,” and he’s taking a bolder approach than his predecessor Jacques Rogge, a Belgian surgeon and former Olympic sailor, according to Michael Payne, a former IOC marketing director.

“There’s no question it’s a big play for the IOC, but one that has potential,” Payne said. “If you’re not in the forefront of the public’s mind, just to go dark in between the Olympics is inviting problems.”

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