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Bungled U.S. Olympics Channel Collapses

August 17, 2009 |  7:35 pm

The U.S. Olympic Committee is taking one for the team.

The U.S. organization this week abandoned its plans to launch a cable television channel dedicated to ambitious coverage of Olympic sports and athletes. The effort was handled clumsily from the start. The July announcement was intended to make a big splash during the Allen & Co. media investment conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.  Instead, the proposed venture immediately began taking on water.  Although the channel was billed as a collaboration with cable giant Comcast Corp., Comcast executives were conspicuously absent from the news conference to announce the channel.  Reporters were told that scheduling difficulties -- not cold feet -- were to blame for the Comcast no-shows.

Then, the International Olympics Committee stepped in, taking aim at the U.S. organization (and perhaps explaining why Comcast had dropped out of sight). The IOC frostily called the U.S. group's plans for a new channel "disappointing" and done "in haste" without considering the ramifications. The IOC threatened to block the move, saying that it did not want the U.S. committee's efforts to launch its own channel to strain the IOC's relationships with important sponsors, including NBC. The network has agreed to pay the IOC more than $2 billion for the TV rights to the Olympic Games through 2012.

NBC Universal was incensed by the U.S. Olympic Committee's plans for a new channel. NBC also owns a minority stake in Universal Sports, another channel that showcases Olympic sports, and it didn't want its investments undermined by the U.S. Olympic Committee's proposed channel. NBC's parent, General Electric Co., is also a major Olympics sponsor.

"There is no question that we underestimated the intensity of the reaction that we got from multiple constituents," USOC Chairman Larry Probst told the Associated Press. "I won't talk about what was going on behind the scenes, who said what or who did what, but obviously there was a more intense reaction than we anticipated."

Consider, too, the constituency of Chicago. People backing Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympics worried that the brouhaha would hamper their efforts to bring the Games to the Windy City, and a key vote is scheduled for early October. These people were concerned the channel flap would stoke anti-U.S. sentiments among some members of the IOC who might then vote to hold the 2016 events in Madrid or Tokyo rather than Chicago.

"The USOC wants to do everything it can to help support the Chicago bid," Probst said. "We want to see Chicago win the bid. Anything we can do to help to support them, we're going to do that."

-- Meg James