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Linear Olympic Channel to bow on DIRECTV, U-verse; Comcast distribution eyed

The new linear Olympic network will not launch until the second half of 2017, but it already has a major distributor on board — and it is not Comcast Corp.

The U.S. television network, a partnership between Comcast's NBCUniversal Media LLC, the International Olympic Committee and the U.S. Olympic Committee, is slated to bow during the second half of next year on video packages offered by AT&T Inc.'s U-verse video offering and DIRECTV.

NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel, speaking on a Dec. 15 conference call announcing the upcoming U.S. network, said the Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA, has secured carriage on the AT&T video platforms as part of a broader deal NBCU reached with the telco in September.

Zenkel said Olympic Channel will be included as part of the NBCU bundle in negotiations with distributors as carriage contracts come up for renewal. Relative to Comcast, Zenkel said NBCU plans to negotiate with its parent before the network is scheduled to premiere.

The U.S. network is the first to emerge following the debut of the Olympic Channel as a worldwide digital platform after the closing ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics in August.

The linear channel, with a focus on U.S. teams and athletes, will air Olympic-sport programming from around the world, including original content produced by the IOC. Like the digital platform, the linear channel will aspire to keep attention burning brightly on the Olympic movement by keeping the sports and competitors in the public eye beyond the scope of the Winter and Summer Games themselves. NBCU, through fees totaling $10.1 billion, holds U.S. multi-platform rights for the Olympics, spanning the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018 through the 2032 Summer Games. NBCU CEO Steve Burke said at an investor conference in September that company made more than $250 million from its coverage of the Rio Games this past summer.

A forbear of sorts to Olympic Channel, Universal Sports (US), which was majority-owned by InterMedia Partners LP and in which NBCU had a stake, was shuttered in November 2015. In turn, NBCU gained various content rights from World Championship Sports Network.

Universal Sports had deals with a number of top affiliates, including DIRECTV, DISH Network Corp., Time Warner Cable Inc. and Cox Communications Inc., but was positioned largely on sports tiers. Comcast did not carry Universal Sports.

Mark Parkman, general manager of Olympic Channel, on the conference call said he envisions other TV channels launching from partnerships with other Games' rights-holders in different nations.

NBCU is looking to gain affiliate traction for Olympic Channel in the U.S. at a time when linear networks have been losing subscribers. Zenkel said the network would not be made available to OTT services, and those interested in streaming the content would have to do so via TV Everywhere authentication.

Along with the channel, the partnership also brings additional Olympic fare that will appear exclusively on other NBCU platforms, including NBC (US), NBCSN (US) and NBC Sports Digital vehicles. The first such coverage starts Dec. 17, with the Team USA Winter Champions Series.

Advertising, for the most part, will emanate from the ranks of IOC and USOC sponsors. To date Bridgestone and Toyota are the only IOC TOP sponsors that have publicly committed to the digital version of the Olympic Channel. Other companies that have sponsorship ties to individual sports may also be able to secure schedules.

The parties did not disclose how ownership is structured and the emphasis seemed to be on promotion, not profit. Zenkel said the service's profits and losses was not its "primary objective." Rather, the directive is to market and tout Olympic sports and the various athletes year-round to create interest and continuity for the Games.

USOC CEO Scott Blackmun said the organization is looking to get more kids interested in Olympic sports, develop a fan base and offer a platform for its sponsors.