Monday, December 30, 2013

Avoiding New Year's Blackouts

As we enter 2014 it appears that the NFL's local TV blackout policy will continue indefinitely. However, even those in support of eliminating it need to realize that the issue is not as significant at this time than it was several years ago. Now that the regular season has concluded, the final tally reveals that a grand total of just TWO telecasts were blacked locally over the entire 17 weeks. For all teams combined. The fact is that the NFL did not have a single local blackout during 15 of the 17 weeks, which is a record low. I suppose it is not worth arguing about if this is going to be the case.

Yet, I continue to find it curious that the TV networks, paying hundreds of millions for the telecast rights, somehow forget to take this up during the negotiation and renegotiation periods. For that much money, the local stations should have the right to show whichever games they want to attract the biggest audiences on "any given Sunday".

When this version of the home team blackout rule went into effect about 40 years ago, it was a time when home games in all of the  major pro sports were quite often not available. The original intent was for NFL fans to now be able to see home games, but "only" when the team sold out in advance. MLB, the NBA, and NHL had no such possibility, leaving most fans to see mostly (if not exclusively) select road games during that era.

Forwarding to 2014, it has become newsworth to find ANY MLB, NBA, or NHL game not televised, with many pro teams having every game shown on cable or over-the-air TV each season. Over the years, the NFL "innovation" of finding a way to make home games available to the local audience has been passed up and lapped by the other pro sports.

The zillions of dollars in rights fees paid by the networks are being passed along to all of us, sports fans or not, who pay a hefty monthly fee for cable or satellite TV. These networks should have the ability to show all of the games they want to in any market, regardless of local coverage, "secondary" market status, and which televising network.

Even the NBA is now, understandably, showing signs of flex scheduling due to circumstances beyond its control this season. Granted, the ABC/ESPN Christmas Day schedule of five games is something which, due to the holiday status, was not able to be changed, there are other opportunities.

Injuries and team slumps have made a mess of this young NBA season. At the start of the season, it was hard to question ESPN/ABC and TNT combining to schedule teams such as Miami, the Lakers, Chicago, New York, and Brooklyn for upwards of 20+ telecasts, more than 25% of their season, for national games.

However, major injuries to players such as Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Brook Lopez and others, have hurt the seasons for the Lakers, Bulls, and Nets. The Knicks have disappointed as well. The NBA has to be aware that scheduling so many of its national prime-time matchups for TV before the regular season begins is too risky. For example, having both the Knicks and Nets at several games below .500 this far into the season hurts when you realize that all four of their head-to-head meetings are scheduled for either TNT or ESPN/ABC.

Now there are signs of hope. The NBA has moved the Jan. 8th game of the L.A. Lakers at Houston off of ESPN, replacing it with Phoenix at Minnesota. Word is that the NBA is fine with this and that fans can expect more flex scheduling for this season. For example, Portland is off to its best start in years, and had originally been scheduled for only two ESPN telecasts.

ESPN/ABC could prosper with its NBA telecast schedule by flex scheduling, primarily because there are generally a multitude of games available on Wednesday and Friday nights, when ESPN shows the majority of its games. However, TNT, despite having market exclusive telecasts on most Thursdays, does not have as much flexibility because the Thursday night schedule is generally lighter.

The paying fans are entitled to have more flexibility of which games they see locally, while the networks should be able to show ANY game in any market.

The November into early December radio ratings are coming out during this holiday period. The only one worth commenting on continues to be the Boston sports radio race. During this period, WBZ-FM Sports Hub maintained a similar lead, and it is a convincing lead, over WEEI-FM, compared with the month prior.

However, the significance is that BOTH stations dropped by more than 1 1/2 ratings points, which is a large dip for the total audience. Consider that five of the top six rated radio stations in Boston for the month GAINED in audience at the same time. This shows how the local sports market is what drives sports radio, and not the personalities and the specific shows.

Both stations dropped during that time because this ratings period was after the dust had settled from the Red Sox championship, and questions remained (during this ratings period) as to where the Patriots would wind up in the playoff race. Yet, such a big deal was made when WEEI made changes to its afternoon show and its Program Director. If one station went down and the other rose in audience accordingly, a case could be made for the specific programming of the stations.

Elsewhere, sorry to learn of the passing of former long-time Cleveland Indians (and Milwaukee Brewers before that) analyst Mike Hegan at the age of 71. After a playing career with several teams including the Brewers and Yankees, Hegan went on to spend 23 seasons in the Indians' booth.

HOUSTON: It's odd timing that as the NFL regular season ends (especially for the Texans) is when former NFL QB Sean Salisbury returns to co-host a sports talk show. Yet, that's what is happening in what could be a secret even to Houston sports fans. KGOW 1560 is bringing in Salisbury, starting Monday (1/6) to co-host 3 to 7 PM with John Granato. The station also let go of John Harris, who had been with the lowly rated station since 2007, and earlier in December lost Josh Innes to KILT 610.

COLUMBIA SC: WOIC 1230 becomes ESPN Radio on New Year's Day, returning ESPN Radio to the market after nearly 1 1/2 years. However, the station plans to only have local weekday programming during the 4 to 7 PM time period, with Duane "Shot Doctor" Everett, Bobby Gist, and Ernest Robinson hosting. The station will be NBA heavy, airing the Charlotte Bobcats broadcasts in addition to the ESPN Radio national games.

Thanks for all of your feedback and input. We're back with more next week. Happy New Year!

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