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Turner’s David Levy was sitting in NBA Commissioner David Stern’s office last spring when he delivered a simple message: NBA TV needed to be rated by Nielsen in order to increase ad sales around the NBA’s digital properties.
Since Turner started to operate the NBA’s digital properties in the fall of 2008, it was finding it difficult to attract big-time advertisers that weren’t already the league’s official partners to the network. Those advertisers were not interested in NBA TV unless it had official ratings from Nielsen that would show the audience size potentially watching its ads.
Stern wanted to make sure the league’s network would have enough distribution before making NBA TV’s numbers public.
Levy also stressed that rating the network would help identify the strengths and weaknesses of the channel based on viewership patterns. But his main point: Nielsen ratings would lead to more advertising.
Stern agreed and, later, he gathered NBA Digital executives in a room at the NBA’s Manhattan offices and asked who thought it was a bad idea to make NBA TV a Nielsen-rated network.
Nobody raised a hand, and Stern went with it.
Turner sat down to negotiate financial terms of having NBA TV become a rated network with Nielsen, and it was able to leverage its other networks, like TNT and TBS, into a deal with Nielsen. It’s not known how much the Nielsen deal was worth, but cost was an issue. A league official said it was not an insignificant amount.
The network officially became rated last November. And after a staggeringly successful NBA 2010-11 season capped off by the Dallas Mavericks defeating the Miami Heat for their first NBA title, NBA TV’s decision to avail itself to Nielsen’s rating system is paying off with advertising revenue and viewership exceeding leaguewide expectations.
“The number of viewers was higher than frankly we had expected,” said Bill Koenig, executive vice president of business affairs and general counsel for the NBA. “We thought we could really get to the next level in terms of ad sales and were absolutely right. We appeal to a much broader array [of advertisers] than we expected.”
Viewer numbers aren’t breaking any records and are small by broadcast standards. But Turner and league executives are happy with the 253,000 viewers that NBA TV averaged over 96 regular-season games this season, believing the viewing patterns have been steady.
But executives are more pleased by the channel’s viewer numbers on Tuesday nights, when fans vote on the game NBA TV will show. Those “Fan Night” games averaged 401,000 viewers for 22 games, a 58 percent increase from its other nights and frequently outdrawing competition on better distributed channels like ESPN2 and Versus.
The Tuesday night numbers showed Turner and NBA executives that fans were able to find games on NBA TV.
But the numbers also show that viewership plummeted when NBA TV stopped carrying live games during the playoffs. In the week of April 25, for example, it averaged 271,000 viewers in prime time, paced by an April 27 Grizzlies-Spurs game that averaged 835,000 viewers. The next week, NBA TV had no live game programming and its prime-time average fell to 41,000 viewers. The channel’s most viewed prime-time show that week: a May 5 edition of “NBA Action” that drew 137,000 viewers.
For the month of May, when NBA TV stopped showing live games, its prime-time viewing average fell below 100,000 viewers to 96,000. During the week of June 6, the last week of the postseason, NBA TV’s prime-time numbers fell even further: Its prime-time average fell to just 56,000, despite an NBA Finals postgame show on June 12 that drew 373,000 viewers after the Mavericks clinched the series against the Heat.
Generally, NBA TV has found that game programming and studio programming — which uses a lot of Turner on-air talent — has drawn good ratings. During the playoffs, NBA TV aired 1,500 hours of pregame and postgame programming, up slightly from the 2009-10 season.
But outside of studio or live game programming, including lifestyle shows and game replays, the network rarely attracts more than 100,000 viewers. That’s where Turner executives say there’s further opportunity to increase viewership.
Still, the average ratings are steady and have translated into more ad dollars. Turner says ad revenue doubled this season, though NBA Digital executives refused to disclose specific revenue figures.
NBA TV added 75 new advertisers this season, widening its list far beyond the league’s corporate partners.
The top five advertising categories this season on NBA TV were motion pictures/film studios, computer/electronics, auto, beer and wine, and video games.
“It was a good time for this call [to rate the network] and we hope the momentum will continue,” said Jon Diament, executive vice president of advertising sales and marketing for Turner Sports.
Now that it is Nielsen-rated, Diament says he’s better able to package NBA TV with NBA.com and TNT’s NBA telecasts, which also has helped sales on the channel.
“[Getting NBA TV rated] was the final piece of the puzzle,” said Bryan Perez, senior vice president and general manager of NBA Digital. “We were able to deliver metrics to advertisers on the Internet and mobile. But [getting rated] powers the cross-platform advertising message.”
The rating also gave ad buyers data to negotiate rates.
“What the rating does for them is to give them legitimacy,” said Hank Cohen, chief executive officer of KSL Media. “They produce a good program and ad buyers need a measurement tool to negotiate.”
The first league-owned network, NBA TV launched in 1999 as NBA.com TV, looking to marry the elements of television with the promise of the Internet. Its programming lineup mirrored its name: The channel had the look and feel of the Internet on TV.
But from studios in Secaucus, N.J., NBA TV’s production values and programming lineup were underwhelming and the network failed to gain traction with audiences or distributors.
Distributors noticed an immediate change when Turner took over NBA TV’s operations and moved them to Atlanta in 2008.
“We think NBA TV continues to improve and appeal to the part of our customer base that are true basketball fans,” said DirecTV’s Derek Chang.
Distribution growth since Turner took over has been impressive. Two years ago, when Turner started operating the NBA’s digital businesses, NBA TV was in just 15 million homes. Today, that number has skyrocketed to 56 million, just below NFL Network and MLB Network.
Fueling NBA TV’s distribution increase was the league’s decision in 2009 to move the channel from sports tiers onto basic tiers. Taking a page from MLB, the league started tying carriage of its out-of-market League Pass package with the move to basic tiers.
While it has deals with the top three cable operators and both satellite platforms, a hole still exists in NBA TV’s distribution structure. It has yet to strike a deal with the fourth-biggest cable operator Charter, which has 4.5 million subscribers.
“There is room on the basic tier to grow,” said Koenig, who leads NBA Digital’s distribution negotiations. “There are smaller distributors that you have to pound the pavement to hit. We are growing over time.”
But the growth and momentum of NBA TV could come to a screeching halt should the NBA lose games to a lockout after the current collective-bargaining agreement expires June 30. Network executives are finalizing contingency plans for any games lost next season to a lockout, but refused to disclose specifics.
“We are focused on bargaining and it is a little too early to tell what we will do next fall if there are any games missed,” Koenig said. “Right now, the focus is on getting a deal done.”
Three years after selling a stake in the Dew Tour to MTV, NBCUniversal has bought it back in a deal that values the property and its assets at $40 million to $60 million.
The deal puts the Dew Tour back exclusively in the hands of the NBC Sports Group, which partnered with Live Nation to create the five-stop action sports series in 2004. NBC first approached Viacom, MTV’s parent company, about buying out MTV’s stake in Alli Sports in February. The parties came to terms on a deal earlier this month.
The Dew Tour expanded considerably during the three-year partnership between NBC and MTV.
“We thought with the impending Comcast merger it made more sense to have these assets under the same umbrella,” said Kevin Monaghan, senior vice president, NBC Sports Group. “Dick [Ebersol] believed very strongly we needed another partner. We didn’t have the cable platforms. They were focused on the lifestyle. We’d seen ‘The Life of Ryan’ and how it supercharged our crowds. But [Ebersol] thought post-merger we’d have the assets to leverage and grow this business. [Comcast executives] were very open to this, and they agreed it made sense to own 100 percent of this.”
Alex Ferrari, chief operating officer of MTV Networks Music Group, said the network acquired its stake in the Dew Tour at a time when it was looking to get into action sports. Its priorities have subsequently changed, and it has become more interested in developing scripted programs, which left it open to selling its stake back to NBC. The value of the company has increased since then from a reported $15 million to $30 million valuation in 2008 to a $40 million to $60 million valuation today. The size of MTV’s stake in Alli Sports remains unknown.
“It was opportunistic [when we bought it] in ’08 and it’s opportunistic now,” Ferrari said.
The Dew Tour will still air on MTV2 this summer, as well as NBC and USA Network. After that, NBC will look to shift the programming to Versus and Comcast regional sports networks, Monaghan said.
Ferrari said that MTV2, which is where most Dew Tour programming aired, will still show sports but the company has no specific plans in action sports.
During the three-year partnership between NBC and MTV, the Dew Tour expanded considerably. Its operators adopted the name Alli Sports, launched a new website, built an e-commerce business and added the Winter Dew Tour, AMA Motocross series and Gatorade Free Flow Tour to its portfolio of properties. Many of those initiatives were driven by Jeff Yapp, the former executive vice president of MTV Networks Music Group who left the network in 2009.
The efforts expanded the revenue of Alli Sports enough to double the value of the company in three years and increase its staff from 25 to 45 employees, but it required the company to grow fast during the height of the recession.
“Our core business is really healthy,” said Alli Sports President Wade Martin. “We’ve invested a lot in new businesses and some are moving along well, and some we’ll need to make decisions on. We knew those were new investments that would take time to mature.”
The Summer Dew Tour, which remains Alli Sports’ premier asset, reduced its size from a five-stop to a four-stop series for 2011. The move will yield a 20 percent cost savings for the tour, but it also will reduce its viewership and attendance total. It averaged 203,625 spectators for five events and 722,455 viewers on NBC in 2010.
The tour is in the middle of negotiating renewals with all of its title partners: Mountain Dew for the summer and winter tours; Gatorade for the Free Flow Tour; and Lucas Oil for the AMA Motocross Series.
In the wake of NBC’s acquisition, Allisports.com will move from an MTV-supported Web platform to an NBC-supported one. Monaghan and Martin said NBC is more equipped to provide that support today than it was in 2008. Since then, it has built a more robust NBCSports.com site. They added that doing so also gives Alli Sports access to NBC’s established digital sales and distribution teams, which they anticipate will help the site monetize its digital assets more effectively.
“That’s a layup and two years ago we couldn’t do it,” Monaghan said. “Now we have the resources to really, really help them.”
Monaghan said that he’s held discussions with NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus about developing an Alli board that includes both internal and external executives. Martin would report to the board the same way he reported to the NBC- and MTV-led board featuring Monaghan, Ebersol, Ferrari, MTV President Van Toffler and Amy Singer, former MTV vice president of business development.
Monaghan said that NBC will be focused on developing new revenue streams for Alli Sports. He pointed to Comcast’s GolfNow.com platform, which sells tee times at golf courses nationwide, as an example of the type of new business he’d like to see Alli Sports develop.
“That’s our challenge moving forward,” Monaghan said. “The Dew Tour’s really good programming. It’s programming that works as well on the Web mobile tablets. It’s got a great target demo. We love the appeal and global interest. But what’s next?”
Fox has held informal discussions with NASCAR about a new TV rights agreement that would allow the network to put some of its Sprint Cup races on Speed.
David Hill, Fox Sports chairman, said Fox would like to see some of the 13 regular-season races it televises on Speed. A Fox source said the company could ask for as many as six races for the network.
Fox is five years into an eight-year, $1.76 billion contract with NASCAR that mandates Fox televise all of its Sprint Cup races on its broadcast channel except for two non-points, specialty events — the Sprint All-Star Race and the Gatorade Duel from Daytona, which air on Speed. If it wants to move regular-season Cup races to Speed before its contract expires in 2014, it would have to amend its agreement. Fox sources were skeptical such a move would be made before the contract ends.
KRISTINA PAUMEN / LIMELIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY
Hill: “Speed is the default NASCAR network, and it might be logical to assume they might have certain aspirations to a channel.”
Steve Herbst, NASCAR vice president of broadcasting, said in a statement that NASCAR is in constant discussions with its partners but he declined to address the specifics of the Fox conversations.
The talks come a year after NASCAR agreed to let ESPN shift the majority of its Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship coverage from ABC to ESPN. Ratings on ESPN, which showed 14 races, and ABC, which showed three races, dropped 14 percent following that move. A similar viewership decline likely would follow if races moved from Fox to Speed, which is distributed in 78 million homes. The Sprint All-Star Race on Speed this year averaged a 3.3 final Nielsen rating and 4 million viewers, which more than quadrupled the network’s average prime-time audience. By comparison, Fox averaged a 5.0 final Nielsen rating and 8.6 million viewers for its 13 regular-season Sprint Cup telecasts.
Hill said that Fox always intended to carry Sprint Cup races on Speed, which Fox launched in 2002 after acquiring the channel, then named Speedvision, from Comcast and Cox. The company carried some Cup races on its cable channel FX during its initial 2001-05 rights agreement with NASCAR.
The move would allow Speed to use live NASCAR broadcasts to increase the license fee that cable and satellite operators pay each month, which is currently around 30 cents, according to sources. The move would amplify Speed’s on-air promotion of NASCAR races during the week and allow it to keep an audience of NASCAR enthusiasts tuning in for everything from news programs to the wrapup of that weekend’s race.
The move also makes sense for Fox, which would be able to spread highly rated sports content across two channels: one broadcast and one cable.
In addition to talking about putting Sprint Cup races on Speed, Fox has raised the possibility of making NASCAR a stakeholder in Speed and turning it into a joint-venture project. Sources familiar with those conversations said that they have been ongoing for several years.
By partnering with NASCAR on Speed, Fox could avoid competing with the property if it decided to launch its own channel. NASCAR Media Group opened a $43 million facility in downtown Charlotte in 2010. The facility has four floors of studio and production space and an extensive digital archive that would allow NASCAR to start its own network if it chose to do so. The assumption is that it wouldn’t make that decision until after its current broadcast agreements end in 2014.
“Speed is the default NASCAR network, and it might be logical to assume they might have certain aspirations to a channel,” Hill said. He added that the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball have their own networks, and NASCAR is in the same class as those leagues.
Hill stressed that the joint venture talks were casual. He said that he and NASCAR President Mike Helton discuss a variety of opportunities when they get together to shoot skeet at Helton’s ranch in the Southeast.
“The great thing about this business is it’s always fluid,” Hill said. “There’s any given number of possibilities.”
There was so much talk about streaming video during the cable industry’s annual convention in Chicago last week that Comcast’s Brian Roberts felt compelled to remind cable executives why they were there in the first place.
“Let’s not forget about the television,” Roberts said during a panel session on the conference’s final day.
Comcast’s Brian Roberts demonstrated a faster Internet speed that will boost live video quality.
It was fitting that Roberts made his remarks after he demonstrated a new super-fast Internet speed that will make downloading and sharing video much easier.
The service would give live Internet video more of a broadcast quality and provide a big boost for sports to broadcast live via the Internet.
The new faster Internet, which Roberts said should be available by the end of the year, underscores the importance of a debate among programmers about the best business plan for broadband and mobile service.
The cable industry clearly is worried about free Internet video and, in a phrase that was repeated multiple times last week, is taking steps to avoid the same fate as the music industry. Cable executives believe the availability of free music on the Internet and file-sharing systems severely hurt the music industry.
As the highest-rated and most expensive content, sports programming was at the center of the debate.
It was clear that cable operators and programmers believe full cable channels will be simulcast live on tablet computers and other mobile devices at some point. The question programmers debated in Chicago last week dealt with what the business model will look like.
That tone was set early in the week’s first panel session, when Time Warner’s Jeff Bewkes and News Corp.’s Chase Carey staked out different positions on how to stream channels to mobile and broadband applications.
Bewkes advocated making channels available on all Internet devices without charging consumers extra for it.
Carey, however, said that programmers would not give away content like that if consumers will pay for it. He complained that the pace to develop a business plan already was moving far too slowly.
“We’ve talked about authentication for two years, and we’re still talking,” he said.
Still, Fox is making a push into the streaming video world. Carey said the Big Ten Network would introduce a streaming service for tablets called BTN2Go. The service will be authenticated to BTN cable and satellite customers, making live games and other programming available on tablet computers. It will launch in August.
ESPN, meanwhile, was promoting its authenticated service throughout the convention. The ESPN booth was filled with iPads that demonstrated the WatchESPN app that streams ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPN3 to Time Warner Cable, Bright House and Verizon subscribers.
ESPN’s Sean Bratches said his company is somewhere in the middle of the Bewkes-Carey debate. Distributors pay ESPN extra for the right to make the app available to their subscribers, but ESPN does not allow the distributors to charge consumers extra for it.
I think Comcast/NBC overbid. It seems clear it could have secured the Games for a much lower price. Comcast and NBC executives had to be kicking themselves once they learned how much lower Fox’s bid really was.
But the deal doesn’t seem as out of whack as many suggest, especially considering the market for sports rights, where such properties as the Pac-10 and NHL have secured huge rights fee increases.
Comcast’s payout for the 2014 and 2016 Games essentially is flat, which is notable after the Pac-10 signed a deal that was nearly five times higher than its current deal and the NHL signed a deal that more than doubled its current deal.
NBC paid $2 billion for the 2010 and 2012 Games; Comcast will pay $2.001 billion for the 2014 and 2016 Games. That’s an increase of just .05 percent.
Comcast committed $2.380 billion for the 2018 and 2020 Games, which is an increase of 19 percent from 2010 and 2012. That means that Comcast/NBC has secured an important sports property through the end of the decade at a manageable increase.
“It’s a flat number when a lot of properties are seeing increases,” said David Bank, managing director of global media and Internet research for RBC Capital Markets. “In the context of sports cost inflation, that seems attractive.”
But this is where so many media executives have a problem with Comcast’s bid. Comcast agreed to a flat rights fee on a deal that lost $223 million on the 2010 Vancouver Games alone. Sources say it is expected to lose money on the 2012 London Games, too.
Taking into account those losses, the value of the deal drops to $1.6 billion or so. Fox said it would have made a small profit on the 2014 and 2016 Olympics if its $1.5 billion bid had been accepted; ESPN projected a slight loss at $1.4 billion.
But the reported losses don’t show how the Olympics have helped, and will help, other parts of Comcast’s business.
Look at Comcast’s sports channels. Versus is in 76 million homes at 30 cents a subscriber a month; and Golf Channel is in 84 million homes at 30 cents, meaning that they both have room to grow.
“You have to figure out a way to drive affiliate fees up, and sports is your best shot,” Bank said. “The value of sports content is ridiculously important to TV networks.”
The Olympics should help Versus, in particular. It will add high-value sports programming to a channel that’s been trying to add more sports content to supplement its NHL deal first signed in 2005. With only the NHL, Versus hasn’t been taken all that seriously as a sports network. Guaranteeing that it will feature Olympic programming through 2020 gives it a legitimacy that IndyCar and mixed martial arts bouts couldn’t provide.
If properties didn’t realize it before, the Olympic deal puts Versus front and center when the next round of big media rights fees come due. Rich Greenfield, a financial analyst at BTIG, said Comcast/NBC will look to add more high-profile content to Versus in the next few years. “My top takeaway is that Versus now is certain to bid on the NFL,” Greenfield said.
The Olympics also have helped ad sales across all of NBC’s sports properties. During an Olympic year, NBC treats the Olympics like a Super Bowl, wrapping NFL and NHL ad sales into a larger buy across all of its properties. And ad rates for a nonsports property, like the “Today” show, also skyrocket during the Olympics.
Chatter in media circles is that NBC needed to keep the Olympics. It operates three 24-hour sports channels in Versus, Golf Channel and Universal Sports. It lost the chance to add Pac-10 programming to those channels last month, when Fox and ESPN outbid it.
Industry executives say NBC had to keep the Olympics to send a message to other sports properties that it wants to be a serious player in sports programming. Having big-time sports like the Olympics and NHL on Versus makes it easier for other properties to entertain the idea of being on the channel.
“Comcast had an extra need to keep the property,” said Kevin O’Malley, an independent media consultant. “Did they bid too much? When they need to keep something, that will affect their bid.”
Wall Street also showed a sign that Comcast’s bid was not as fiscally risky as some suggest. In the week since it won the Olympics, Comcast’s stock has mirrored the Dow, staying flat.
BTIG’s Greenfield said it will be impossible to judge the deal for several years, saying TV viewing habits could continue to change, migrating more to mobile and broadband service. The business of television almost certainly will change by 2020, in the same way it’s changed since 2002.
“Did Comcast overpay? You’re asking about Olympic Games in 2014 and 2016,” Greenfield said. “I have no clue. Nobody does.”
John Ourand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.