SBJ/October 24 - 30, 2005/Media

ABC/NBA go with flex schedule

Turn on ABC this winter on Sunday afternoons and you’ll get a steady diet of the NBA.

That’s because the network’s 2005-06 coverage is its most ambitious yet under the current rights deal. The strategy also calls for full-season flexible scheduling, a first under the six-year television deal and a measure that both sides are banking on to drive ratings.

Being able to show key matchups is
expected to boost ABC’s ratings.

The network also will integrate its Super Bowl coverage this season with the NBA. ABC is still finalizing plans, but will air its NBA coverage of the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks game at noon before the Super Bowl and will host its NBA pregame and halftime shows from Detroit, the site of Super Bowl XL on Feb. 5.

The NBA and ABC agreed this season to a Sunday afternoon network schedule of 20 “windows” and will have 24 games in those broadcast windows counting regional coverage. ABC aired 18 games last season and broadcast 15 games during the 2002-03 season, the first season of its six-year, $2.4 billion deal with the NBA. The games typically will air at 1 p.m. or 3:30 p.m. Eastern time.

ESPN will broadcast 64 games this season, the same as last year. ESPN2 will air six games compared with eight last season.

The addition of full-season flexible scheduling will allow ABC to feature the most compelling games throughout the season to help drive regular-season ratings and follows the NFL’s strategy of adopting flexible scheduling next season. Flexible scheduling is hardly a slam dunk, given the logistics of putting together the broadcasts, but ABC will work two weeks out to limit the complications.

Last season, the NBA on ABC generated a 2.4 rating for 18 games during the regular season, a 4.2 percent decline from the previous season. The NBA said that with its expanded schedule it has as many Sunday “windows” as it had under its prior contract with NBC. However, NBC’s strategy of airing double and tripleheaders on Sundays pushed the total number of games to 33 during the 2001-02 season, NBC’s last year of NBA coverage.

Regardless of the numbers, the NBA has been migrating from broadcast to cable in recent years, and this year’s league schedule is a move in the opposite direction.

“ABC would like our game as a promotional platform for themselves and ESPN,” said NBA Commissioner David Stern. “We want to re-establish a regular and continuous Sunday afternoon time. If you can get regular and continuous ratings of a certain guaranteed level, the rights fees negotiations in the other sports are demonstrating the value of sports.”

Stern also noted that the NBA’s sales pitch is one of gross rating points and the league’s ability to deliver a young male demographic, more so than a solitary ratings number. “Anybody who thinks that any network programing is going up hasn’t been living in our network environment,” Stern said.

ABC begins its NBA coverage on Christmas Day with a doubleheader broadcast of the San Antonio Spurs and Detroit Pistons, followed by Los Angeles and Miami. The league will again hold its Rivalry Week from Feb. 23 to March 1, highlighting the NBA’s long-standing rivalries, including the Boston Celtics against the Los Angeles Lakers on ESPN on Feb. 26.

“The strategy is to increase the exposure and establish a consistent schedule, and we are happy to introduce flexible programming,” said Kelly Laferriere, vice president of programming for ESPN, which oversees ABC Sports. “We are working with the league to adjust the matchups.”

ABC and NBA executives are counting on the prospect of flexible scheduling to drive advertising sales, which network officials termed “robust” leading up to the season, but refused to disclose.

“Buyers will be happier knowing they are not stuck with a schedule that was made months in advance,” said Mike Trager, a television industry consultant and former Clear Channel TV chairman, adding that the programing changes are a function of both the network and ABC getting more familiar with each other.

“[ABC and the NBA] are a good way through their contract now,” Trager said. “The breaking-in process is over and it’s time for them to expand.”

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