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Broadcaster Paul Finebaum "is leaving the Birmingham, Ala., market where his contract expired in January, for Charlotte, N.C., and a national forum: ESPN," according to Rachel Bachman of the WALL STREET JOURNAL. Finebaum signed "a five-year contract," but "neither he nor ESPN would give financial details." His "multi-tiered platform will include a radio program on ESPN networks, 100 televised appearances annually on ESPN and a TV simulcast of his radio show on the ESPN-owned SEC Network launching in August 2014." Finebaum’s four-hour daily radio show on Birmingham-based WJOX-FM was “syndicated on nearly 30 stations across the South and revolved around legions of listeners.” Bachman: "The question is whether Finebaum can retain the distinctly southern feel of the show in a slick, nationally packaged product.” ESPN Senior VP/Programming Justin Connolly said that Finebaum's radio show “at first will air primarily in the Southeast.” Finebaum also will “appear on a range of ESPN TV programs that relate to college football before the debut of the SEC Network” (WSJ.com, 5/21). In Birmingham, Bob Carlton notes Finebaum “began his radio career in Birmingham” in ’85. His show, which “later became known as ‘The Paul Finebaum Radio Network,’ quickly became a lightning rod for controversy, but year after year, it was consistently one of the top-rated radio shows in Birmingham.” But since Finebaum’s contract with WJOX owner Cumulus Media expired in January, he has been off the air "while pondering his next move” (BIRMINGHAM NEWS, 5/22).
NBA conference semifinal games on ABC, TNT and ESPN saw ratings and viewership decline compared to the second round of the playoffs last year. ABC finished the second round with a 15% ratings drop and a 16% decline in viewers. The net carried two games from the Heat-Pacers Eastern Conference Semifinal series last year, but had no games from the Heat-Bulls series this year. ESPN saw its second-round average rating drop 16%, with viewership down 14%. The net's one game from the Heat-Bulls series (Game 3 on May 10) drew 6.6 million viewers, marking the most-viewed game for the NBA Playoffs to date and most-viewed sports program of any kind on cable TV since the NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 17. ABC and ESPN’s combined second-round figures still rank tied for the second-best audience on record, behind only last year (tied with ’11). Meanwhile, TNT saw its conference semifinal rating drop 6%, with viewership down 7%. The net carried four of the five games from the Heat-Bulls series (5.3 million average viewers), but last year had better viewership for the Thunder-Lakers Western Conference Semifinal series (7.2 million viewers for four of five games). During the conference semifinals, TNT won the night among all cable nets when it aired an NBA Playoff game.
PLAYOFFS TO DATE: Each NBA national TV partner also is seeing a drop for the playoffs to date. ABC’s rating and viewership are both down 8%. ESPN is down 11% in rating and 10% in viewership. ESPN’s drop is on the heels of the net’s highest-rated NBA postseason on record. TNT’s average rating through round two is down 4%, with viewership down 8%. Despite the drops, NBA Playoff games continue to be the most-viewed telecasts on cable TV. For the week of May 6, when the Conference Semis began, NBA games were the six most-viewed telecasts on all of cable. For the week of May 13, NBA games occupied the top three spots on cable and seven of the top eight spots (TNT had top four most-viewed games). TNT has also ranked as cable TV's No. 1 network in primetime among viewers during the last three weeks. The net has also topped all cable nets among adults 25-54 and 18-49 during that time frame (Austin Karp, Assistant Managing Editor).AUDIENCE FOR NBA CONFERENCE SEMIFINAL GAMESNETGMSRAT.% +/-VIEWERS (000)% +/-'12 GMSABC43.4-15.0%5,184-16.3%4TNT133.3-5.7%4,985-6.9%12ESPN53.1-16.2%4,828-13.7%6AUDIENCE FOR NBA PLAYOFFS THROUGH CONFERENCE SEMIFINALSNETGMSRAT.% +/-VIEWERS (000)% +/-'12 GMSABC83.4-8.1%5,150-8.2%9TNT372.7-3.6%3,961-8.0%36ESPN142.4-11.1%3,732-10.4%14
Layoffs confirmed yesterday by ESPN will include "more than 100" at its Bristol, Conn., HQs, and the number of job reductions worldwide will be "in the low hundreds," according to sources cited by Dan Haar of the HARTFORD COURANT. Sources said the total number includes "targeted cuts by attrition as well as layoffs." Sources said that a "small office in Denver was closed as part of the cuts." However, yesterday's layoffs "will not push ESPN out of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's First Five program, under which the network received a low-interest, partly forgivable loan" of $17.5M and as much as $8M in "grants and tax breaks in exchange for investing" at least $25M and adding at least 200 jobs in the five years starting August '11. An employee at the Bristol campus yesterday said that there "was no specific target of the cuts." Haar writes the "hope is that some of the people laid off will land different jobs the company is filling" (HARTFORD COURANT, 5/22). In N.Y., Miller & Sandomir note ESPN is expected to "cancel 'Unite,' a late-night program on ESPNU that started last year" (N.Y. TIMES, 5/22). In Bristol, Steve Collins reports some ESPN employees called it "Black Tuesday." The company has 7,000 employees, with "more than 4,000 of them based in Bristol" (BRISTOL PRESS, 5/22).
READING THE TEA LEAVES: The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Sharma & Fritz write the layoffs are a "sign that the hugely profitable sports cable-TV powerhouse is responding to the higher prices it is paying for rights to air games as well as other industry changes." ESPN is the "biggest part of Disney's cable networks division, which accounted for 69% of the company's segment operating income in the quarter ended March 30." ESPN also is "trying to reallocate resources as its priorities shift." For example, "consolidation in the pay-TV industry that has left fewer players means ESPN doesn't need as many resources dedicated to dealing with cable operators." A source said that the consolidation is "one reason ESPN this week closed its Denver office, which had about 20 people." The source added that ESPN also is "shifting more resources into its Web and mobile offerings, which have seen sharp growth" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 5/22).
WAY OF THE WORLD: SPORTS ON EARTH's Will Leitch writes the job cuts have "proven galling to people in a way different than most media company's layoffs are galling." There is "of course the 'Disney making money like crazy' angle, but that's a small part of it." The issue here "was that ESPN was doing ESPN-y things -- making comically oversized sets that reek of Jerry Jones-ism, spending billions to wrap up rights to the NFL, US Open, SEC Network, so on -- on a macro level that required them to slash at the micro level." The company "expanded the things that are harmful to the sports world (rising rights fees, overly close business relationships with the leagues they 'cover,' a larger emphasis on programming rather than editorial) and cut back on what they provide for the sports world (jobs, stability, a sense that there's at least one place in this industry that isn't cutting back)." It is "sort of unfair to blame ESPN for a decision that Disney presumably forced upon them." However, when ESPN "slashes staff in part so it can run in-house back-patting documentaries about the greatness of the Southeastern Conference, well, you worry" (SPORTSONEARTH.com, 5/22).