SBJ/20091102/Media

Comcast must make the right calls on sports in any NBC deal

It’s looking more likely that Comcast will be successful in its attempt to take control of NBC, judging by a series of meetings the two sides have had over the past few weeks.

Toward the end of October, the top executives from NBC and Comcast — including NBC’s Jeff Zucker and Dick Ebersol and Comcast’s Steve Burke and Jeff Shell — gathered for two days of secret meetings in New York, sources told me.

Each cable channel owned by the two entities, from SyFy to Golf Channel, gave a presentation to the assembled executives, highlighting budgets, programming rights and broadband strategies.

The executives didn’t come to any sweeping conclusions. But the mere fact that these top executives spent two days on them illustrates how much both sides want the deal to be completed.

There are three things Comcast needs to do to ensure that the deal, which its executives internally refer to as “Project Crimson,” is a success from a sports media standpoint.

 Comcast needs to retain Ebersol.

It’s a no-brainer that Comcast wants to keep Ebersol. But it might not be easy. Ebersol has a lot of autonomy overseeing NBC Sports right now. Comcast has to make sure that doesn’t change for the longtime television executive.

Comcast needs Ebersol for all sorts of reasons, but in large part because of his Rolodex. Ebersol has deep relationships with the Olympics and the U.S. sports leagues, which is essential if Comcast is serious about growing Versus.

Ebersol also would improve the production quality of Comcast’s sports networks. In April 2008, Comcast hired former NBC Sports producer Michael Weisman as a consultant to improve the on-screen look of its sports networks: Versus, Golf Channel, the Mtn. and its suite of Comcast SportsNets. Weisman is no longer with Comcast, but the need to improve program quality remains.

That’s where Ebersol comes in. He can tell stories through captivating images. His game production, particularly with the Olympics, is second to none. If Ebersol stays on board to oversee sports content, it will give much more credibility to Comcast’s sports networks.

 Comcast needs to see which sports it can share with NBC.

The combination of a broadcast network paired with cable sports channels presents the best opportunity for Comcast to develop a credible alternative to ESPN.

The key to making that happen is to share sports programming between NBC and Versus/Golf Channel. While some NBC sports programming, like “Sunday Night Football,” will stay exclusive to the  network, other programming could be shared with Versus or Golf Channel.

The Olympics are an obvious choice,  since NBC already spreads Olympic programming across its cable networks.

But Comcast also has its sights set on Notre Dame football. Sources said NBC’s deal with the Fighting Irish has a clause that allows a certain number of games to migrate to cable. Versus would be a natural place to house those games.

Versus also could have the right to re-air NBC’s Notre Dame games. And it could roll out pre- and postgame shows around them. In June 2008, NBC signed a five-year extension for Notre Dame’s home football games, a deal that extends through the 2015 season.

 Comcast should consolidate its RSNs with NBC O&Os.

NBC owns broadcast affiliates in four markets where Comcast operates regional sports networks: Chicago, Philadelphia, San Jose and Washington.

If the deal goes through, I expect Comcast to merge those stations in each of those markets, allowing them to share studio space and on-air talent. There are obvious cost savings; Comcast doesn’t need two production studios in these markets. But Comcast’s RSNs would benefit from having high-profile local sports talent appear on their channel.

Whether the Comcast/NBC deal will pass regulatory muster in Washington is a question for another column. Governmental agencies, like the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, are certain to scrutinize the deal closely, a process that could take as long as a year.

But right now, I’m guessing that the two will finalize a deal within the next few months.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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