Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Cycling [Print without images]

Tuesday, July 27, 2004
Tour de France boosts little-know network, but must explain blunder on final day

Associated Press

NEW YORK -- After riding in Lance Armstrong's slipstream to record ratings, the Outdoor Life Network was left trying to explain how it could miss the six-time champion crossing the finish line at the Tour de France.

The foul-up was a disappointing end to an event that essentially put OLN on the map for many television viewers, the network's CEO Gavin Harvey said Tuesday.

"I think it was a missed opportunity," he said.

For its Tour de France coverage, OLN pictures were provided by Societe Francaise de Production, the French production company in charge of sending a video feed to stations around the world. OLN supplemented the feed with 10 cameras of its own during the 23-day bicycle race.

As Armstrong cruised to a near-certain victory on the tour's final day, OLN's request to have a camera following the American champion full-time that day was denied for security reasons, Harvey said.

An OLN camera was perched at the finish line, but the production team was unable to provide live pictures. Instead, the cameraman had to rush his pictures to a production site and the race's ultimate moment didn't make it on the air until 25 minutes after Armstrong's finish.

Harvey said he's still trying to find answers to why OLN didn't have a live camera at the finish line, or why the French production company also missed Armstrong's winning moment.

The sting of OLN's delayed finish was lessened somewhat when OLN executives learned Tuesday that Sunday's conclusion provided the nine-year-old network with its highest ratings ever. Three times during the race, OLN broke viewership records, according to Nielsen Media Research.

OLN was watched by 1.37 million viewers during the race's final stage, Nielsen said. On a typical day this year, the Outdoor Life Network is watched by an average of 56,580 viewers -- barely enough to fill a baseball stadium. The network is available in 60 million homes, a little more than half the country.

"Lance Armstrong has transcended the sport and transcended athletics," Harvey said. "For sports fans, he's a stud. He's a one-name athlete. He's a Tiger, he's a Michael ... He's a once-in-a-generation type of impact player."

OLN first televised cycling's ultimate event in 2001. Armstrong's popularity then was a factor in OLN obtaining the rights, Harvey said, but the network couldn't have imagined he would take off as a sports personality. In 2003, race viewership was more than double what it had been in 2002. This year, it nearly doubled again, executives said.

Harvey says he doesn't necessarily wake up in a cold sweat thinking of future tours with Armstrong on the sidelines.

"We are the home of professional cycling on television," he said. "We love the fact that Lance has brought so many eyeballs and attention to the sport of cycling. But it's not just Lance."

OLN made a conscious effort this year to highlight some of the other American riders and explain the sport to viewers, he said.

"We're prepared" for a tour without Armstrong, he said. "We know the day is going to come."

When OLN started nine years ago, its goal was to be a television version of Field & Stream magazine, the destination for people interested in fishing and hunting, Harvey said.

Now the network is trying to broaden itself to other outdoor activities, including surfing and skateboarding, in an attempt to draw younger viewers. OLN packaged new programming around its 344 hours of Tour de France coverage, including "The Gravity Files," a series about extreme sports, and Outside magazine's "Ultimate Top 10" stories about sports and adventure.

"We see the outdoors as evolving a lot more," he said. "It's a way to be a destination on television for people who share that common feeling that to be outside is to be alive."