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The new year brings a new identity for Versus, the cable sports network best known for hunting and fishing shows, the Tour de France and the National Hockey League. Now a part of the NBC Universal empire (following the merger with Comcast, which owned Versus), the channel — currently available in more than 75 million households — becomes the NBC Sports Network at 4 p.m. ET on Monday, January 2 and will undergo an extreme makeover throughout the year. "It's going to be radically different over time," says Jon Miller, the president of programming, who is building what he calls "a full-service sports network," that will include live events, news and talk shows and original programming.
Versus, which was once known as the Outdoor Life Network, has slowly transitioned into a player in the TV sports world. But some unusual programming choices — like The T. Ocho Show, a train wreck of a talk show featuring flamboyant NFL stars Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco — undermined the network's credibility. "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."
But overhauling the network hasn't only been about getting rid of junk. "Right off the bat we made a long term deal to extend the NHL for 10 years, we acquired broadcast and cable rights for Major League Soccer and then we started to created some of our original programming," Miller says. (As for the hunting and fishing shows, "they will continue to have a role in this new channel going forward," Miller promises, "but they probably won't have a dominant as role as they've had in the past.")
The NHL continues to be a major part of the schedule with games and studio shows several nights a week, as well as the All-Star Game on Jan. 29 and the Stanley Cup playoffs in the spring (along with NBC). Also staying on board are Mountain West Conference basketball games and the Tour de France.
As for new acquisitions, soccer will become a prominent part of the line-up, starting with the championship game of the women's Olympic qualifying tournament for the CONCACAF region (including North and Central America) on Jan. 29. Other U.S. men's and women's national team games are planned, and the first of the network's roughly 40 MLS contests will be televised on March 11 (additional games will air on NBC). "It has all the markings of a sport that is on the rise," Miller says of MLS. "If you look at the attendance figures and the way it's growing, we think it was perfect for us. We made an aggressive bid for it. It's a good property that's sending a message to everybody that they're here and they're here to stay."
This summer's London Olympics also provide the channel with a bounty of programming, including U.S. team trials and pre-Olympic competition in sports like swimming, diving, gymnastics, water polo, field hockey, track and field and volleyball. During the Games the network will cover a variety of events, including cycling, basketball and soccer.
Original programming initiatives began last fall with NBC Sports Talk (weeknights at 6/5c). As the name implies, the emphasis is more on talk — and opinion. "There's a lot places where you can get highlights, but here we tell you what to make of the news," Miller says. Another show that premiered in the fall is CNBC Sports Biz (Fridays at 7/6c), hosted by CNBC's manic, Twitter-obsessed reporter Darren Rovell, who focuses on dollars and cents rather than X's and O's. And in perhaps the network's biggest statement, Bob Costas will host a monthly interview show, Costas Tonight, premiering in the spring, and quarterly town hall specials, beginning with Costas Tonight: Live From the Super Bowl, on Thursday, Feb. 2.
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