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NBC Blows Up Its Kentucky Derby Hype

With sole control of the event, coverage spreads across multiple networks
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NBC is leveraging its sole control of coverage of the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby into a cross-platform promotional push that will span 20 channels and twice as many websites.

Under the guise of NBC Sports’ self-described “big event strategy,” the network is seeding Derby-related content across everything from the Today show to Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Sibling cable networks will also take up the reins, as related segments are set to air on E!, Style Network, CNBC, and the Weather Channel.

Beginning today, Today meteorologist Al Roker and national correspondent Jenna Wolfe will contribute live segments from Churchill Downs. Focusing on the unique traditions that color the Run for the Roses, the reports will touch on foodstuffs (Burgoo Stew is a popular Derby Day dish), the outlandish hats worn by the ladies in the grandstand, and the iconic Mint Julep.

Roker will also reprise his 2010 interview with former jockey and NBC correspondent Donna Brothers, who last April was thrown by her skittish mount during a live segment.

The Derby push comes on the heels of the Comcast-NBCU merger and a February deal that brought the Belmont Stakes back to the NBC stable. With the June 11 race in hand, NBC now owns the rights to all three legs of the Triple Crown.

While NBC won’t leverage its prime-time stars in the same way Fox does during its World Series coverage—no forced cameos of a snacking Calista Flockhart a la Fox’s cameo-drunk broadcast of the 1999 Fall Classic—the network will train its cameras on some of the high-octane pro athletes who are expected to be on hand Saturday afternoon. NBC anticipates a few star turns from the likes of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, gold medal skier Lindsey Vonn, and Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

With ESPN out of the picture, NBCU's cable sports network Versus will host a good deal of Derby content. According to John Miller, chief marketing officer of NBCU's TV group as well as head of its new NBC Sports Agency, of the total 14.5-hour package, Versus will present some 11.5 hours of material.

When NBC renewed its Derby rights package in October, it committed to $25 million, or $5 million per year through 2015. The negotiated price was approximately 18 percent lower than the previous rate of $6 million per year.

NBC is getting a lot of pony for its pennies. Last year’s race served up 16.5 million viewers, making it the most-watched Derby since 1989, when 18.5 million people watched the doomed colt Sunday Silence win the garland of roses. By comparison, the last time the race was shown on ABC (2000), only 9.1 million tuned in for Fusaichi Pegasus’ win.

Along with the sheer number of new platforms at its disposal, NBC Sports sees the cultural impact of the race as a justification for revving up its Derby hype machine. “In the last few years, the Derby has transformed from a horse race to a spring cultural event,” Miller said. “Several of our channels focus on the sort of lifestyle activities that surround the Derby and make it a such a marquee event.”

“The Derby is one of those events where people come together to watch. There are Mint Julep parties, and people will dress up as if they’re at Churchill Downs,” Miller said. “And it’s one of those events that’s higher rated than most people think. In the last few years it’s been NBC’s highest rated show in the second quarter.”