Months of sweating, strategizing and planning go into preparing for the Olympics, to say nothing of what the athletes do. TV networks bend over backwards to avoid, complement or compete with the Olympics, particularly this year with 400 hours of the games on NBC, CNBC and MSNBC smack in the middle of broadcast's fall premiere season (Sept. 13-Oct.1).
Broadcast networks are holding their goods until the games are over, but a handful of cable networks are going after the people who aren't riveted by the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
"We're definitely not lying low," said Jeff Gaspin, executive vice president of programming and production at VH1. In fact, the network is staging its biggest TV/Internet convergence play yet on the last Friday of the Olympics. During prime time on Sept. 29, VH1 will air five pilots and ask viewers to vote online for the one they want to see made into a series. Dubbed VH1 Feedback, Gaspin likens the event to one big on-air focus group.
None of the pilots breaks with the VH1 tradition of making a show out of every conceivable occurrence in the music business, but there are a couple of ambitious standouts. One is Reunion, in which VH1 searches out former band members and reunites them for one evening. The other is Break. Through, VH1's version of Star Search, with viewers voting online for the artist who should get the big break of having his or her video played on the network. The remaining three pilots include Fish n' Clips, a sort of Mystery Theater 2000 take-off with two animated fish hosting a music video show; Radical Recuts, featuring music videos intercut with footage from, say, a cop car chase or a '50s movie; and EveryNight, yet another attempt at music news, this time from a club on Los Angeles' Sunset Boulevard.
Gaspin isn't the only programmer going up against the Olympians. VH1 sister net MTV outfitted six people with body cams, locked them in a prison in West Virginia and scared the devil out of them to create Fear. Brian Graden, president of programming for MTV, likened the one-time stunt show to Survivor but without the head games. "We let their own psychology freak them out," said Graden.
Fear appears Thursday, Sept. 21, at 8 p.m. Four nights later at the same hour, Graden will counterprogram the Olympics with a different type of fear in the form of Choose or Lose Town Hall Meeting with presidential candidate Al Gore. Then, on the final Sunday of the Olympics, MTV will premiere its first prime time programming block. Titled Jackass Sunday, the block features its namesake program about skateboard hotdogs, plus new episodes of Celebrity Death Match and Senseless Acts of Video.
Throwing premieres up against the Olympics may seem gutsy, but it isn't a huge gamble for networks like MTV and VH1, which draw twentysomethings. Olympics viewers are mostly 35 to 55 years old, with slightly more of them being male than the average prime time audience. "It's certainly not everybody," said Tim Brooks, senior vice president of research at Lifetime. "Remember, about 80% of the country isn't watching."
Even so, Lifetime was the only one of the 10 largest cable networks that didn't sink in ratings during the 1996 games in Atlanta. Back then, when the summer games were actually played during the summer, Lifetime ran a marathon of miniseries throughout the events. "We were up 21%. We averaged a 1.7 during the Olympics, vs. an average of 1.4," Brooks said.
So guess what Lifetime's doing this year? Try Deliberate Stranger, Blind Faith, Texas Justice, Cruel Doubt and about 20 more miniseries, starting at 7 p.m. during the week and at midday on the weekends. "We don't believe we can beat the Olympics, but we're going after our women," said Steve Warner, vice president of planning and acquisitions.
With the minor exception of a few Australian themes here and there, the other major cable networks-Discovery, USA, ESPN, and the Turners-are sticking to their usual agenda.
"We're not doing anything special, but we'll be there for people who get tired of the Olympics," said Ed Hersh, vice president of documentary programming for A & E, which offered a couple of Olympics-related programs last week to capitalize on the pre-Games buzz. "We just think it's a time when, if people are dialing around, we'll provide an alternative."
The Elián González Story is FOX Family's one major premiere during the Olympics. The made-for-TV biopic of the little Cuban refugee premieres Sunday, Sept. 17, at 8 p.m., and repeats three more times during the games.
"The way you compete with the Olympics is not by trying something different but to do what you do best," said Lifetime's Warner. "The Olympics is 400 hours. You're not going to watch the Olympics for 400 hours."
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