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Versus TV will soon be just a memory

By Dan Caesar, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –

Curses, it’s on Versus.

That at times has been the battle cry of frustrated NHL fans who wanted to watch a game on the Versus channel, which hasn’t been picked up in many places through the years no matter what name it has gone by since being launched in 1995 as Outdoor Life Network and later being known simply as OLN.

But if the grand plans now in place for Versus come to fruition, the network that has specialized in hunting and fishing shows plus the Tour de France, then the NHL, will become a major player in the cable TV sports landscape.

Next week it is to be renamed “NBC Sports Network” — a move that has been in the works since Versus’ owner, telecommunications giant Comcast, bought NBC Universal early this year.

Comcast has gradually been upgrading programming on Versus, adding sports-talk and NFL-related shows, and the transition officially comes at 4 p.m. EST on Monday when it switches names in time to carry the NHL Winter Classic postgame show. Bob Costas will host the program after the Flyers-Rangers game in Philadelphia airs on NBC.

NBC Sports Network plans to continue to add programming, both live game coverage as well as ancillary shows, as the year goes on and will de-emphasize the outdoor fare in favor of sports that have more widespread interest.

“We came to it with a real strategy and vision,” Jon Miller, NBC Sports’ president of programming, said in a recent interview.

He added that the plan is “to try to create a sports network that we could all be proud of but would be representative of what the NBC Sports brand has come to represent — which is high-quality production, really good story telling and a real respect for the viewer as well as the property we are in business with. We made some initial changes when we got the keys, eliminated programs we thought were off brand and off target.”

Among those dropped were shows such as “Whacked Out Sports,” “Sports Jobs” and the program featuring football’s Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco. Programs that have been added, or are forthcoming, include “NBC SportsTalk,” “NFL Turning Point,” a sports-business show with CNBC’s Darren Rovell, Major League Soccer live telecasts, the Olympics and more NFL-related shows.

“We’ve tried to make the network a little stickier, give people a reason to come every night to see what we have,” Miller said.

‘Captain costas’

An eventual centerpiece of the network will be longtime St. Louisan Costas. He will conduct quarterly “Town Hall” issues-oriented programs, beginning Feb. 2 from the Super Bowl, and also do monthly “Costas Tonight” in-depth interview programs similar to what he once did on HBO.

Then this summer, Costas again will be NBC’s lead Olympics host.

“He is the single brightest star in our talent stable,” Miller said. “The fact he has embraced this and wants to be a big part of it is great for us. Everything he touches is done first class and to me that’s such an important thing to have. His voice will be the voice of the NBC Sports Network, literally and figuratively, and that is key for us. … I can’t tell you how important it is to have him be our captain.

ESPN not targeted

It sounds as if this could be a blueprint for NBC to try to challenge sports TV behemoth ESPN, but Miller said wait a while.

“They are the gold standard, I am a fan, I think they do a tremendous job,” he said. “What we want to be is a good, attractive sports destination for people. Our job is to make sure we’re the best we can possibly be, then we’ll worry about all the other things.”

To that end, look for NBC Sports Network to lack some of the smugness the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports” often exudes. In the interview Miller talked multiple times about respecting the viewer and sports.

NBC Sports Network will be picked up in about 76 million U.S. homes on opening day, which is about 23 million fewer than ESPN. The big difference is that ESPN is carried in almost all cable-satellite packages, whereas in many instances Versus/NBC Sports Network is a part of a package that many subscribers don’t purchase.

Miller hopes the upgraded programming lineup, plus a lot of Olympics coverage this summer, will help close the gap.

MOre changes

The transition from Versus also includes reducing, but not eliminating, fishing-hunting shows (which Miller terms “field sports”) and bull riding.

“You’ll see us change over time, they aren’t going to occupy as much space as they have in the past and over time we’ll be very selective and strategic about how we showcase the ‘field sports’ programming,” he said. “They’ll still have a home on the network for a while, and that portion of our programming will be rebranded as ‘NBC Sports Outdoors.’ We won’t have as much of it, but there still will be a place for it on our air.”

Those airwaves on Monday will be occupied after the Winter Classic wrap-up by “Cold War on Ice,” a 90-minute piece that starts at 3:30 p.m. and was produced by former HBO documentary artist Ross Greenburg. It recaptures the historic Summit Series from 1972, during the height of the Cold War, between a team of NHL stars from Canada and the Soviet team. That will be followed by NHL pregame programming leading into the telecast of the San Jose — Vancouver game at 7 p.m. as NBC Sports Network will be in full swing.

“I’m in my 34th year with the company and I can’t imagine anything in my career that could ever be more exciting and challenging than to be a part of this,” Miller said. “We have a one-year vision, a two-year vision, a five-year vision and 10-year long-term vision and all of those things are within our grasp. We have a great partner in Comcast, which is committed to sports programming evidenced by the huge investments they’ve made over the last eight months.”

That includes new deals with the NFL, NHL, Olympics, MLS and PGA Tour. There also eventually will be a Sunday morning NFL pregame show and possibly some Thursday night NFL games.

“They clearly have shown they believe sports is the pathway to success and it’s our job that we prove them right,” Miller said.

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