SBJ/October 2 - 8, 2006/SBJ In Depth

TV partners project ratings, ad revenue gains

In August 2005, OLN executives were ecstatic when they picked up the cable rights to the NHL. Hockey represented the biggest sport on the network and was viewed as a linchpin for the network to acquire an eight-game NFL package later that year.

By the time the Stanley Cup Finals arrived,
Versus (OLN) had worked out many kinks.
By the season’s midway point, in February 2006, the deal looked like a disaster for both parties. The NFL spurned OLN on its rights package, the network’s hockey ratings were anemic, and the few hockey fans who watched bitterly complained about OLN’s productions.

“When we launched, we had a month to do it,” said Gavin Harvey, president of OLN, which changed its name to Versus last week. “You can’t launch a major sport in a month.”

OLN came out of the All-Star break with a new on-air set and a new graphics package. Plus, in March the NHL hired veteran hockey producer John Shannon to help make the broadcasts more professional. Shannon was a longtime executive producer of “Hockey Night in Canada” and Leafs TV.

Thanks to the changes already made in its broadcasts last year, NHL and network executives are confident that last year’s problems will not be revisited. They are projecting significant gains in both ratings and ad revenue.

“Put it this way: We’re looking for more than just 5-10 percent growth,” said Marc Fein, Versus’ senior vice president of programming and production. “We really want to take a nice leap this year.”

Much of this confidence comes from a television schedule that gives NBC and Versus more exclusive windows for hockey games. NBC will show its games on Sundays this season, as opposed to Saturdays last season. And Versus will have an exclusive game of the week on Tuesday nights through November, after which it will switch to Monday nights.

“I view last season very much as a transitional season for us on television,” said NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. “This summer, and obviously this year leading up to this coming season, we’ve been able to develop a very good schedule for Versus and for NBC. … We weren’t able to create exclusive windows last year, just because of the timing.”

So far, some advertisers are stepping up. Dodge and Enterprise agreed to return as sponsors on Versus. New sponsors for the upcoming season include Rent-A-Center, Philips Electronics, Clorox and Midas.

NHL executives credit Shannon’s hiring with helping to stabilize the hockey broadcasts, which look like much admired “Hockey Night in Canada” broadcasts.

“He is working to establish minimum standards and minimum criteria with our rights holders, and he’s going to work on a constant basis in terms of providing feedback and evaluations with our local broadcasters and working with them to help improve the quality of the broadcast,” Daly said.

Through the course of the year, Versus made several changes to its coverage. It moved its on-screen score from the bottom of the screen to the top, where it is traditionally. And it revamped its set, which was originally built in just five weeks and looked particularly unprofessional on screen.

“We’re starting this season where we left off in the Stanley Cup playoffs where games were produced in a standard of any other network that’s ever done it,” Harvey said.

The networks’ main enhancement this season will be with on-ice audio, with more microphones placed around the rink and along the benches. More players will be miked up as well.

Versus and the NHL are particularly excited about new media applications that they plan to launch this year, including streaming games (Comcast.net will stream two games per week), video-on-demand and wireless applications.

Versus launched a broadband player on its Web site that provides game highlights and a wrap-up of the network’s NHL games.

“We’re looking at other exclusive vignettes that will be exclusive to the broadband player,” Harvey said.

Versus plans to downplay the condensed studio show it released on VOD last year because it didn’t get enough views. This season, it’s going to provide condensed games on VOD along with the studio show.

“We’ll keep assessing the numbers each month. If one thing works, we’ll continue with it. If it’s not (working), we don’t,” Fein said.

NHL ratings trends
Average regular-season ratings for NHL broadcasts from the 2000-06 seasons.

Network
2005-06
2004-05
2003-04
2002-03
2001-02
2000-01
ABC
NA
-
1.1
1.1
1.4
1.1
ESPN
NA
-
0.47
0.46
0.49
0.59
ESPN2
NA
-
0.24
0.23
0.23
0.25
NBC
1.0
-
NA
NA
NA
NA
OLN
0.2
-
NA
NA
NA
NA

Note: The 2004-05 regular season was canceled due to the player/owner labor dispute.
NA: Not applicable; did not have NHL coverage that season.
Sources: Nielsen Media Research, SportsBusiness Journal research

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