Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Media Competes Just Like The Teams

Is the impact that sports has on media greater than the impact media is having on sports right now? Several developments on both fronts this week make that a most interesting question.

NBC is at both ends of the spectrum in terms of the sports impact on the media. Its NFL opener and two Sunday Night Football telecasts have brought tremendous ratings, as expected, and the network has several major matchups to bring us, including its first ever Thanksgiving prime-time telecast. However, the NHL lockout (as of press time) and its threat to delay or even wipe out the scheduled season would mean a severe blow to NBC Sports Network on cable/satellite. NBCSN started to enjoy the benefits of its thorough and expanded NHL coverage from last season, which included the first time showing every post-season game on a national basis.

Since NBC has not been a serious contender (to this point) for any of the MLB or NBA telecasts, the NHL games became the central focus for NBCSN. Although the network has added a few "lesser" college football telecasts and just began some MLS telecasts (with dismal ratings), the lack of live pro sports content without the NHL would be a severe blow to its progress. In addition, the newly added NBC Sports Radio Network loses much of its promotional opportunity from TV until or unless the masses have a real reason to tune in to NBCSN. Yet, this is a sports impact, since NBC has no control over whether or not there is an NHL season or a sufficient number of games available for its audience.If the NHL lockout does go on for weeks, certainly the fans, owners, and current players lose out big time. In this instance, so would NBCSN and indirectly the new NBC Sports Radio Network.

The competition also continues to heat up between CBS Radio Sports and ESPN Radio, although in this instance more at the local level than on a national platform. We have already seen the effort by CBS in New York to maintain its Yankees and Mets rights and keep local baseball away from the expanded signal of ESPN on FM there.

Now, CBS Radio wants to get into the act in Cleveland. Word is that WKRK 92.3 (a CBS station) is making a serious bid to air the Indians baseball games starting with the 2013 season, which would end the long-time run on WTAM 1100. Here is a case where the Indians' bottom line could benefit because of the influx of radio sports networks and for no other reason. This is the Cleveland Indians, fresh off their typical season of falling off the face of the earth after the All-Star break and playing spoiler in front of dropping crowds. If it wasn't for CBS and NBC Radio starting sports networks this quarter, I'd have a hard time believing there would be anything even close to a bidding war for Indians baseball on the radio. Realistically, the team might instead be negotiating for the time to sell its own advertising and hope to do better than break even.

In Boston, ESPN Radio has managed to firm up its battle against CBS' WEEI based on a major announcement earlier this week. While CBS' WBZ-FM The Sports Hub continues to generate strong overall ratings and looks to be one of the stronger CBS Radio Sports Network stations in terms of a major market presence, WEEI is allowing ESPN to take a stronger position in the market. WEEI will no longer simulcast its AM and FM signals as of October 5th, when 850 AM will switch to full-time "national" ESPN Radio, while 93.7 FM will continue the local "regular" WEEI programming, including the Red Sox and Celtics play-by-play. This seems like an ESPN corporate push in the radio battle with CBS, but may not have anywhere near the impact ESPN seems to think it will. The passionate "local" fans would be more likely to switch over to the Sports Hub than to a national feed. Where this could (and emphasis on "could") make a difference would be in fringe areas beyond the FM signal who also can easily receive WFAN 660 from NYC. Some of those listeners might choose the ESPN brand over what WFAN has to offer. I'm just not sure it will make enough of a ratings difference to justify this locally, although ESPN Radio will gain financially based on increased national and/or regional sales.

Still another reminder of media impact on the game comes with the unfortunate passing of Steve Sabol earlier this week. The former President of NFL Films, along with his late father Ed Sabol, spent the past 50 years revolutionizing how football is televised. It wasn't only the innovations, such as slow-motion replays, reverse angle replays, and implementing showing single plays from multiple angles that made NFL Films so great. Nor was it just the amazing editing and packaging of game highlights lasting anywhere from 30 seconds of key plays to 30 minutes of highlights from a single game. Nor was it the unforgettable voices of John Facenda and Harry Kalas making every play seem legendary to our ears.

We can't overlook how comparably little TV coverage the NFL had when the Sabols were in their prime with NFL Films. When Monday Night Football first started in 1970, ABC-TV used NFL Films for their half-time highlights of the Sunday games. At that point in time, every NFL market would have either two or three games shown on Sunday afternoon. The network pre-game shows were 30 minutes, and some (but not all) NFL markets added another half hour pre-game on Sunday mornings. The "post-game" we saw on Sunday afternoons was often up to five minutes to go through the scoreboard and maybe show us a key touchdown or two from around the country.

Even into the 1970's, fans often waited for the following Saturday after a specific NFL game to see extended highlights on the half hour "NFL Game of the Week" TV series, and only then if the featured game was the one they were most interested in. It was within this extended highlights format that fans learned to watch plays in slow motion, from different angles, and hear player and coach reaction from the moment. These aspects of NFL coverage that we all take for granted today were started 40+ years ago by the Sabols. Media coverage of football, and for that matter all sports, was brought to this level with a big thanks from NFL Films. How wonderful that Ed Sabol (Steve's father) was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011, and that Steve was around to enjoy it.

Even with the later 4:25 ET start time for NFL primary doubleheader game telecasts this season, it's good to see the networks are sensitive to wanting fans to see the conclusion of a long running opening game. This past Sunday (9/15), CBS stayed with the conclusion of the Baltimore at Philadelphia game before switching viewers over to the Jets vs. Steelers doubleheader game in many northeast markets. In this instance, the New York and Pittsburgh markets, along with nearby "secondary" markets for the respective teams, did get switched to the Jets vs. Steelers in time for the start.

However, the Ravens vs. Eagles telecast could have gone a lot better, especially when CBS' #2 NFL team of Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf were involved. The telecast showed Ravens safety Bernard Pollard injured on a play, but for whatever non-acceptable reason, failed to follow up. Several minutes of playing time elapsed before Gumbel and Dierdorf even mentioned Pollard's replacement. Despite the fact that Pollard made a key first quarter interception in the end zone to stop an Eagles drive in perhaps the most significant play of the first half. Pollard did not return to the game, yet his injury and its status went uncovered. Here was one of the few instances when a game telecast could have actually had some benefit from having a "sideline reporter", and CBS blows an important in-game injury story.

Over at Fox Sports, their Saturday afternoon MLB coverage on Saturday (9/14) scored the highest overnight for a Fox Saturday baseball telecast in more than 2 months. Then, its USC vs. Stanford prime-time college football telecast was the highest of the first three weeks of its Saturday night games, showing an increase each week, and less domination by the ABC prime-time telecasts.

The new Pac-12 Network has added "coach" Rick Neuheisel to its Saturday football studio coverage.

Speaking of new TV networks, Comcast SportsNet Houston is getting ready to make its debut on October 1st, in time to begin its Rockets coverage as the team's new TV home. CSN Houston also takes over televising the Astros for next season, with the challenge of being a new network having to showcase a team which lost over 100 games as it begins play in a new league. Kelli Johnson has been signed as an anchor and reporter, coming over from CSN Mid-Atlantic where she had been covering the Nationals on a regular basis.

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