Universal Sports' Shift From Free to Pay


Surely some were struck by Universal Sports’ announcement earlier this week that the multicast channel, partially owned by NBC Sports, is shifting from a free, over the air diginet to a pay-TV channel, distributed on cable, satellite and telco TV, in January. After all, Comcast made considerable pledges to keep free, over the air TV just that when winning approval on its merger with NBC.

It’s worth noting that NBC Sports is a minority partner in Universal Sports, which shows an array of Olympic sports, as well as the current Rugby World Cup (hey, check it out at 3:30 a.m. tomorrow, when the U.S. Eagles defeat Russia down in New Zealand!). The majority partner is InterMedia Partners.

Said NBC in a statement: “Universal Sports’ change in distribution strategy was not made by NBCUniversal or Comcast; Universal Sports determines its own distribution strategy and negotiates its own carriage arrangements.”

Universal Sports  CEO David Sternberg tells me the channel’s affiliation agreements expire at the end of the year, so it was a logical time to shift the distribution model and garner some sub fees. “We’ve been considering it for some time,” he says. “We’ve had three years of free to air multicast, during which we feel we’ve demonstrated the value of our programming to consumers and distributors. So the time seemed right.”

Sternberg says the channel reaches an underserved viewer who overindexes in key purchasing categories, and may not watch a whole of of mainstream sports on major networks.

“We think the content on the channel is extremely compelling,” he says.

Universal currently airs on around 50 stations, and on DirecTV. Sternberg says he’s in talks with the major subscription TV operators for carriage.  “We’re pretty far down the road,” he says. “I expect we’ll have some announcements soon.”