NBA Cinches Critical Cable Carriage Deals

Rumors surfaced last year, following the NBA partnership with Turner about a compromise of lower affiliate fees for expanded coverage on Time Warner Cable. It made sense given the Turner relationship, and as I continue to harp on, is critical as league-owned networks near a make or break tipping point.

In advance of last week’s Opening Night, NBA TV closed carriage deals with Time Warner, Cablevision, and Dish, adding to its distribution roster of Comcast, Cox, DirecTV, and Verizon. The latest additions put NBA TV at 45m homes, a 3x increase from last year’s opening night, and a clear signal the network plans to become a major player.

What the NBA has going for it that none of the other league networks have are the Turner partnership and a strong digital offering that aligns with the on-air product. No, I’m not forgetting the power of MLBAM, but I am accounting for the fact that MLBAM operates in a silo and appears to clash more than integrate with MLB Network – and the league for that matter. However, taking a page from MLBAM’s playbook, NBA Digital recently released a mobile application for its streaming video package and it continues to market and improve the online version. They have done well to leverage TNT talent and production capabilities to create a quality mix of online and broadcast programming.

Thinking bigger picture for a second, while the NFL may command the most demand, the NBA and MLB have the longest season and the most content, two ingredients that work well for media. The demand for the NFL may actually work against NFL Network, since it increases the competition it faces and the event driven nature of football concentrates the competition into certain days and times. Meanwhile, though they have less absolute number of fans, NBA TV has an opportunity to capture a bigger share of the market, and partnering with its top television partner for production and marketing only adds to the possibility.

Long term, if the network can entrench itself with fans, slowly build a stable of exclusive games, grab rights to ancillary basketball events (Olympics, college, overseas, maybe NBA games played overseas), it has a chance to continue to expand that 45m subscriber base and boost its subscriber fees. It’s pulling the right strings hiring solid talent (adding McHale to a cast that include C-Webb) and proliferating digital distribution channels. Within a few years, NBA TV can become a meaningful revenue stream for the league and a serious competitor in the sports television landscape.

Success in media continues to get more difficult with lower barriers driving increased competition and fragmentation. However, NBA TV, and the other league networks have one significant advantage – they own the content. MLBAM has proven on the digital side that managing content correctly can lead to big business, while on the other side the NFL Network shows that just putting games on will not bring customers and providers to their knees.

Similar to my criticism of the NHL Network for not committing to wider carriage and making a strong push, let’s commend the NBA for getting the deals done and putting the resources behind what can become a big future revenue stream for the league that will offset some of the decreases it expects in other business lines.

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Inherent Flaws in Sports Nielsen Ratings

Not exactly a shocking headline, but with the playoffs bringing TV ratings to the forefront it’s relevant. Every news outlet that reports TV ratings for sports events documents both the rating and number of viewers, usually adding the annual change in each number.

Maybe it’s a pet peeve of mine, or I’m making too big a deal of it, however the annual change in the number of viewers is a biased statistic that often masks poor ratings. The Nielsen rating is based on the percent of TV households that are tuned in, a relative measure, while the number of viewers is an absolute measure.

While the viewership number includes households with more than one viewer, the number of Nielsen TV households has grown slightly year over year, which will inherently boost the viewership number. I’m admittedly making a few assumptions here, as I’m not intimately familiar with the intricacies of the Nielsen process. Looking at the year over year ratings and viewership numbers, the only explanations are: more TV households, a change in viewership patterns, and/or change in Nielsen’s viewership calculation.

In any of the above cases, the total viewer number is not a good year over year indicator because it ignores the relative changes in the system. A better metric is share – the percent of TV households watching TV at the time that are viewing a program. Though programming faces different competition each year, its a better indicator of what the population is watching.

With all the inherent flaws of the Nielsen sampling process that the media industry has come to accept – for the time being, at least – harping on this point may not be worth it. But when ratings are decreasing and every story at there makes a point to mention that viewership is flat or viewership is up, the stat must be taken with a grain of salt. The lesson – some sports are struggling on TV more than they lead on.

NBA Cable TV Ratings Proves Point

Games 4 and 5 of both NBA Conference Championship series exceeded 9 million viewers and would have ranked in the Top 10 for the week on broadcast. Game Six for each series, played on the two weakest nights for television ratings – Friday and Saturday – posted solid viewership over 8 million, better than the comparables on broadcast for those nights

It’s a tribute to the NBA, it’s marketing clout, and the star power it rolled out for these two series. The ratings are the latest indicator that line between broadcast and major cable networks is blurry, if non-existent. Sports cable ratings continue to climb, while overall primetime broadcast numbers decline, and sports broadcast ratings continue to drift. The argument that big events must be on broadcast is over. We can still argue Versus against broadcast, at least until they improve channel location and distribution, but the major cable networks are essentially on par with broadcast networks.

That said the NHL announcing a contract extension with NBC is questionable. The Peacock treats hockey like a step-child, shifting the schedule around for horse racing and late night television, skimping on marketing, and not adding any substantial revenue. Take the show to all cable. Add a second network to complement Versus, be it ESPN or a Turner network. The NBC deal is not hard to match. Both cable enterprises bring more much-needed creative, aggressive marketing to the table, and much stronger digital presences than NBC Sports, which would complement the NHL’s progress with digital.

MLB followed the NBA and NHL by putting its LCS on cable last season – and successfully with strong ratings for the Boston-Tampa Bay series. It’s doubtful the NFL will follow suit anytime soon, but football is a different animal. However, suddenly its not impossible to envision a World Series or NBA Finals on cable in the next decade. The networks prove they can bring the ratings, the leagues should listen when they bring more money to the table than the broadcast partners.

More so than ever its about the product and effective marketing, distribution is no longer a differentiator holding back cable.

TNT-NBA Live Stream Not Ready for Primetime

Credit the NBA and TNT for taking the huge leap of faith by streaming a nationally televised playoff game on the Internet. Another sign the future of digital media is now. This particular partnership, after completing a groundbreaking television contract that included digital rights earlier this year, and building a dedicated Internet video portal during the season (TNT Overtime at NBA.com) has a chance to set the trend for the major leagues.

Trailblazers – not the kind from Portland – benefit from being ahead of the curve, and fail by being ahead of the credit, because they encounter problems. TNT’s experiment with the Western Conference Finals is filled with shortcomings that prevent the experience from fully engaging the user, frustrating enough to push experimental viewers back to the TV set, and just downright irritate users with no television option.

Video was solid, slightly jumpy and a touch grainy at times, but overall high quality. The multi-camera view immediately caught my attention when first announced. That’s what will separate the online experience – and eventually interactive TV – from regular television. Interactivity – allowing the user to create the experience – is at the crux of digital media. Rather than user’s choosing from using any camera deployed around the court, they picked from the regular feed, a player cam that followed one individual player from each team as voted by the fans each quarter, the “robo” cam from overhead, or a mosaic that had all four views. Alternatively, users could use a view from the Arena jumbotron. I see more options in the future, a good start nonetheless. Unlike most streaming video applications, no option exists to switch the view to full screen. Grainy screen or not, some users buy big screen monitors for a reason.

Multimedia means media from multiple sources – notably audio and video. TNT delivered the video, not the audio. Users are exposed to the ambient arena noise, enough to hear the fans and PA announcer. Without the broadcasters its difficult to follow the game, especially if you watch the player cam and can’t follow the ball. As annoying as some broadcasters can be, they are there for a reason. Hearing the foul situation, the coach’s strategy, the interviews between quarters, the numerous other stories that develop throughout a game, its part of the experience. TNT failed to deliver.

In-line with audio possibilities, TNT should consider using the player mic – a smashing success when used on an entertaining player like Rony Turiaf, evidenced with his various histrionics on Friday night. Give the fans something. The broadcasters, player mics, even fan commentary from people at the game. Delivering a combination of all three is optimal, again allowing the user at home to create the experience, something television cannot accomplish.

Compounding the lack of commentary, the player provided no access to stats or a boxscore. Instantaneous access to information is another cornerstone of digital media. Fans want stats, lots of them. More than just points and rebounds, shot charts, the ability to look up season stats, the interesting trends that broadcaster routinely cite (points in the paint, 10-0 runs, etc.). All that is possible online. TNT could replace the upcoming schedule on the left column with a box score and have miscellaneous stats pop up during the game, or provide links to get more detailed stats. At least give users the option to add a stats section somewhere on the screen.

Chat is another perfect application for streaming live games. Let the fans interact. TNT and the NBA got one part right, creating three channels, one each for fans of the two teams, and a general one. Only problem, users had to use a completely separate window to chat, preventing them from watching the game. Even though it required a separate window (or tab), the chat window only used the left quarter of the screen, leaving the entire middle blank. Chat and message boards during live events are tough to monitor and keep up with, making it difficult to use it as a forum to ask announcers questions, yet its a key interaction that people use. They are already online watching, engage them further, keep them on the site. This chat application was not user-friendly or as engaging as I envisioned.

Overall, nice to see a major league and major broadcaster take a stab at advancement. Now, the key is to learn from these shortcomings and continually make it better, and expand the coverage.

TNT Botches Game Schedule

TNT, along with NBA broadcast partners ESPN and ABC, continue to ride the most provocative NBA season in recent history to big television ratings, taking advantage of teams in the ultra-competitive Western Conference and the re-emergence of the Celtics. Thursday night TNT blew its last regular season opportunity for big ratings.

Each Thursday the NBA schedules a third game, along with the TNT doubleheader. This week, five of the six teams playing were in the West race, two games pitted in the Pacific time zone. Yet TNT televised the one game with the worst team involved, the Clippers, and passed on the one non West coast game, in Dallas, forcing a local start time of 5:00 PM for the Golden State-Denver game.

Kobe and the Lakers always draw ratings, but why put a semi-meaningless LA showdown featuring the hapless Clippers that turned into a 30-point blowout and pass up an intriguing Dallas-Utah game with two teams in the midst of the playoff race. To make the decision look worse, the Mavs and Jazz played a tight game down to the wire with Nowitzki hitting a late jumper to send Dallas to the playoffs.

The schedule forced the Nuggets-Warriors game, tied for the final playoff spot, to start at 5 PM locally to accommodate the late start in LA. TNT easily could have started the Dallas game at 7 CST, not an unreasonable for local fans on a Thursday, kept the Warriors at 10:30 EST, 7:30 local, and boasted a Western Conference double dip involving the three teams battling for the final two spots and a division winner, then had Dallas clinch. Instead they have a snoozer in the late window, and probably in the ratings column.