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