"Programming this first year will lean heavily on the Olympics, 38 regular-season Major League Soccer games, 13 IndyCar Series races, 14 hours a day of Tour de France coverage for most of July, 90 regular-season NHL games along with 50 NHL playoff games, 20 hours of horse-racing coverage around the Triple Crown, and 40 college football, basketball, and hockey games."
The Outdoor Life Network has come a long way since its beginning in 1995. From televising fishing shows and the Tour de France as the signature series, to becoming Versus in 2006 and acquiring the NHL as its flagship sport, to now becoming the NBC Sports Network at 4:00 PM ET today. The official name change happens five months and a day after plans for the launch of NBC Sports Network were officially announced thanks to the Comcast/NBC deal.
The relaunch was supposed to begin with a Winter Classic postgame show, but with the hockey game being moved from 1:00 to 3:00 because of weather conditions, Versus becomes NBC Sports Network with a (presumably special) edition of NBC Sports Talk. In the evening, NBC Sports will broadcast a hockey documentary Cold War on Ice: Summit Series ’72 followed by Canucks/Sharks.
As for what programming lies ahead for NBC Sports Network, the Philadelphia Inquirer has a nice compilation of all the live events that will be offered on the new channel...
That lineup should worry NBC execs because it's not exactly the NFL and the NBA. However, there's enough of a live sports portfolio to at least get off the ground. The Olympics (and all of the trials that go along with it) will be a huge boost in this first year with the 2012 summer games in London. NBC is also putting a lot of stock in MLS numbers growing in the same way NHL numbers have risen in their time on Versus/NBC. Soccer is a growing television power, but MLS has not received the same impressive ratings that international soccer and the EPL have experienced. NBC Sports President of Programming Jon Miller says the network will also get away from the inane, amateurish programming that held Versus back as told to TV Guide...
"When we took over Versus, there was a lot of programming on the network that we didn't think was consistent with what NBC Sports was about," Miller says. "And so the first thing we did was we jettisoned some properties like Wacked Out Sports and T. Ocho and Sports Soup."
In place of T. Ocho and Jenn Sterger (pour one out today in memory of all those crazy Versus shows) will be heavyweights like Bob Costas, who will bring Costas Tonight monthly and town hall meetings quarterly to the network. As they were in 2011, NBC will be a major player in any major rights deal that appears on the horizon to load up on live sports programming moving forward. As much as ESPN's debate shows infuriate viewers, give new President John Skipper credit for going all in acquiring live sports rights. NBC will be under pressure to get NFL games, make a move for the next MLB contract, or another fashionable sports property. For now, the NHL will have to carry the mail for NBC.
For as much flak as Versus got for nobody being able to find the channel, NBC Sports Network will launch in 75 million households today. That's about 3/4 the households that ESPN and ESPN2 are in, so it's not like NBC is beginning this venture from scratch. But, according to USA Today, less than half of television viewers had heard of Versus. Yikes. The NBC/Comcast machine will have to try to change that statistic quickly in the first year.
You can bet the folks in Bristol will also be watching the NBC Sports Network debut closely. For sports fans generally, this is a good day because competition breeds quality. NBC stepping up to challenge ESPN will push both networks to be better. Whichever way the competition breaks, it'll be fascinating to see just how much of a challenge NBC Sports Network can provide ESPN in 2012 and beyond. Here's the NBC Sports promo for the network's rebirth...