SBJ/January 16-22, 2012/Media

CBS Sports Network turns to media personalities to drive growth, distribution

When CBS and Turner signed a deal to carry the NCAA tournament in 2010, the network’s cable channel, then called CBS College Sports, appeared to be an afterthought.

Stuck in less than 40 million homes, the channel lost its only tournament game and was not part of the announcement.

Nearly two years later, CBS’s strategy with the channel is beginning to take shape.

The network hired David Berson a little more than a year ago to direct the channel’s growth. Berson has responded by signing programming deals with sports media personalities like Tim Brando, who simulcasts his three-hour radio show weekday afternoons, and Jim Rome, who last week agreed to host a daily show from 6-6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday on the channel starting April 3.

In the absence of live events, media industry executives say personality-driven programming is a good way for a network to grow. “The surest way for a network to grow is to have live events,” said sports media consultant Neal Pilson. “Attracting personalities is a strong No. 2 way of doing it.”

CBS’s pursuit of Rome showed how the network can attract personalities. In addition to hosting a show on the poorly distributed cable channel, which was renamed CBS Sports Network last spring, CBS also was able to offer Rome time on its premium network, Showtime, and its broadcast network.

All together, CBS’s three outlets made it easier for Rome to leave ESPN2 and its 100 million-home universe.

“I’m not leaving ESPN as much as I am joining the CBS family,” Rome said.

CBS Sports Network may not be able to have big events on its schedule, but that doesn’t mean that CBS will ignore them. CBS plans to use its cable channel to carry pregame or postgame programming around events that are on the broadcast network

“We have great events at CBS Sports: college football or golf or NFL or tennis or college basketball,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. “We haven’t taken advantage as well as we should have the association that CBS Sports Network could.”

The channel still has a schedule that is heavy on college sports. But it’s slowly bringing new programming, such as Professional Bull Riders, into the mix. Still, much of its daytime schedule is littered with repeats of shows from its network. The task of remaking the schedule remains a long process.

Distribution, too, has been slow. CBS Sports Network is in about 42 million homes. It has deals with the biggest distributors, including the two biggest cable operators (Comcast and Time Warner Cable), the two biggest satellite distributors (DirecTV and Dish Network) and the two biggest telecommunications companies (Verizon and AT&T). The channel, however, is relegated to poorly distributed sports tiers on most distributors, and networks have found it difficult to migrate off of those tiers.

Pilson said channels need to get to between 70-75 million to have “national exposure.”

McManus said he was confident the channel will achieve that distribution mark.

“Eventually, it will be a fully distributed, viable sports network with very compelling programming,” he said. “No one’s looking for immediate growth. We’re looking for sustained and gradual growth, both in terms of the revenue and the distribution and the quality of the programming.”
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