It’s always interesting to consider how a big sporting event like the Olympics affects the rest of TV, with the usual thinking being that the network(s) with rights uses those to promote and launch other programming and the networks without rights cede the day, running cheap counter-programming and saving their heavy-hitting shows for other time periods. With the Olympics, NBC’s done plenty of that first approach, and has even worked Olympic sports into promos for everything from The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor in 2008 to Go On in 2012 to About A Boy in 2014, and competing networks have generally taken the second approach. It sounds like the second part’s about to change, though, with executives from CBS and Discovery telling Reuters’ Jessica Toonkel that they’re planning to aggressively counter-program the Olympics:

With a growing number of people now viewing shows on-demand, CBS Corp (CBS.N) and Discovery Communications (DISCA.O) for the first time plan to pit new or popular shows against the global sporting event.

CBS, for example, will debut a scripted series about politics by the creators of hit show “The Good Wife.” Not to be outdone, Discovery is bringing back its popular series “Naked and Afraid XL” — a reality show where contestants must survive in the wilderness for 40 days with only one or two items.

…”It used to be that we would just do enough programming to keep the lights on during the Olympics,” said Michael Greco, executive vice president of programming and research at Discovery. “That discussion has completely changed.”

While CBS and Discovery recognize that many people will watch the games, they are also betting they will tune into shows using video on-demand (VOD) or apps from networks or cable companies that stream programming.

“People have so many more options to catch up on these shows,” said Kelly Kahl, senior executive vice president at CBS Primetime. “Today, it doesn’t feel like you have a losing battle against the Olympics.”

This approach has some downsides. For one thing, some people will choose to catch up on these shows via time-shifted DVR viewing that skips the all-important ads rather than VOD apps that do present ads. For another thing, rates for ads on streaming options are generally much less lucrative. It’s also worth noting that summer is usually seen as a poor time for TV launches in general, which is why most of the biggest shows make their debuts in fall or winter. Beyond that, too, Toonkel’s piece says Leichtman Research Group’s 2015 data has only 51 per cent of cable subscribers using VOD in the last month; that’s a big jump from 34 per cent in 2010, but it’s still only half of the overall cable audience (and that’s the cable audience, not those who only receive broadcast programming, many of whom don’t have or use VOD options). Those factors are part of why Fox head of scheduling Dan Harrison told Toonkel his network’s largely taking the traditional approach of ending new shows before the Olympics. Still, CBS and Discovery are optimistic they’ll attract advertisers who don’t want to pay the Olympic premium and viewers who will check their shows out despite Olympic competition, and they’re both going into this in a big way:

CBS is debuting two new original scripted series this summer, “BrainDead,” a comedic-thriller set in Washington, D.C. and “American Gothic” a murder mystery drama. Both start in June and will run through the Olympics.

Similarly, Discovery Channel plans to run 23 hours of new programming during prime time when the Olympics airs. That is up from nine hours four years ago, said Discovery’s Greco.

The network is also going head to head with the Olympics with “Seven Countries in Seven Days,” where different shows on the network will take place in different countries in order to tap into the international spirit of the Olympics, according to Greco. For example, the network will air an episode of “Treasure Quest,” which features treasure hunters, in Brazil.

“We are definitely all in over the Olympics,” Greco said.

We’ll see how this pays off for CBS and Discovery (and if the other channels under Discovery’s umbrella take similar approaches), but it’s certainly interesting to see attempted Olympic counter-programming. If they find a decent audience for this, the conventional thinking may well shift, and new shows during the Olympics may become the norm rather than the exception.



About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.

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