Once the NHL struck an agreement to go to the Sochi Olympics, the question from a business perspective was what would the league get out of interrupting its season for games that will be happening halfway around the world.
In addition to added exposure for hockey, the NHL wanted some more access to Olympic content. One piece of that is the new "NHL Revealed" program that debuts Thursday night on CBC.
"NHL Revealed: A Season Like No Other" is the league's new all-access show that takes fans through the four Stadium Series games, the Heritage Classic and the Olympics. It's building off what HBO's "24/7" has done with the Winter Classic, but it's the extra access in Sochi that makes it unique.
"The ability to have the Olympics as part of this is pretty compelling, certainly from a content standpoint," NHL COO John Collins said in a phone interview Thursday. "And that was a lot of the motivation behind not just the series but the way our whole business plan lays out this year."
As it shoots toward being a US$4-billion industry, the NHL hopes to take advantage of a season with six outdoor games that also includes the world showcase of the Olympic tournament. Collins said it's "no coincidence" that the Stadium Series and Heritage Classic were scheduled right around the Olympics.
"Building as much buzz as we can going into the Olympic break and then obviously giving both NBC and CBC something significant to promote of the NHL within their Olympic coverage," he said. "That's the way you draw it up. Hopefully it goes that way."
Execution of a well-orchestrated plan is all that's still left, and that's in the hands of producers Julie Bristow, Ross Greenburg and Steve Mayer. Getting access to star players like John Tavares of the New York Islanders and previewing the Stadium Series games is one part of the production, but it'll be a whole new ballgame in Sochi.
Bristow said "NHL Revealed" will follow Olympians on the charter planes to Sochi on Feb. 9 and then back afterwards. While the Games are ongoing, two crews will have access to the arenas and spend time off the ice with players and their families.
Because it's being shown on NBC and CBC, the program will have access to game footage, though episodes won't be shown during the Olympics to respect the networks' programming and exclusive rights agreements. Bristow and her colleagues' challenge is to give viewers added content beyond the games themselves.
"I do think that this kind of storytelling gives you a different perspective on what happens to the lives of these players, and a different perspective on the storytelling around the game will be quite interesting after the Olmypics is over," she said in a phone interview earlier this week.
Throughout the course of the show, the NHL will be offering added content in the form of a "director's cut" that Collins said will be available for purchase on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video after each episode premieres in the U.S. and then Canada. Fans in Europe will also be able to buy episodes, and those with subscriptions to NHL GameCenter will have access.
That's a major departure from HBO's approach as a premium subscription channel.
"Because the league was contributing a significant portion of the production to this project, we were very focused on what we wanted to be able to do in terms of alternate methods of distribution, both in North America and in Europe," Collins said. "Some never before seen, maybe 'bonus' coverage, I think is really going to be something that's added value."
Collins hopes fans will want to see the episodes that air and the extra stuff. The quality of content will go a long way toward those results.
Bristow said the show is using some microphones and camera angles that haven't been done before and will build off the high standard set by HBO's "24/7" program. Shooting will happen over a span of almost 90 days, she said, so there will be plenty of material to work with.
Obviously what makes all-access programs worth watching is the behind-the-scenes nature of it.
"You don't make access-driven documentary series without the access guaranteed and keeping open during the series," Bristow said. "The access is great. The story-lines are really strong."
If "NHL Revealed" is a hit, it could spark even more shows of its kind like teams are doing now, like Boston's "Behind the B" and Philadelphia's "Flight Plan." Collins called the embracing of all-access programs "a cultural change that is very progressive."
It's even more progressive to have inside access at the Olympics, one of the more rightsholder-controlled events in all of sports. Bristow is well aware of that from her time at CBC, which included running the Olympics.
This time around, the league will be able to do daily highlight shows on the NHL Network during the Sochi Olympics and provide an inside look at the Games with "NHL Revealed."
The decision to go to the Olympics was made separately to this kind of access, Collins said, but it was part of the NHL's vision when it talked to the International Olympic Committee along with the Players' Association about participating.
"A lot of what we heard in those meetings was, 'If it's OK with NBC and it's OK with CBC, who are our exclusive rightsholders in the U.S. and Canada, are then we're more likely than not to be comfortable with it,'" Collins said. "That was a big driver of a lot of what hopefully fans are going to see in this series."
Pyeongchang, South Korea, is a long way away. With hopes that the NHL and the Players' Association hammer out a deal for a return of the "World Cup of Hockey," it's uncertain what will happen in regard to participation in the 2018 Olympics.
This "NHL Revealed" show won't make or break that, but if the league's overall experience in Sochi is a productive, profitable and positive one, it could help make that case.
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