SBJ/February 20-26, 2012/Media

NBC Sports Net ratings slow out of the gate

The first edition of NBC Sports Network’s “Costas Tonight” was exactly what the network’s executives wanted: NBC Sports’ biggest on-air star, Bob Costas, interviewing a who’s-who list of top sports personalities from the Super Bowl.
Only 108,000 viewers watched it live.

One of the first shows to appear on the newly rebranded channel was a documentary called “Cold War on Ice.” Again, it was exactly the type of show NBC Sports covets for its all-sports cable channel: a high-quality documentary from one of the best producers in the business, former HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg.

“Costas Tonight” debuted from the Super Bowl with high-profile guests but drew modest numbers.
Photo by: BEN COHEN / NBC
It drew only 167,000 viewers for its Jan. 2 premiere.

To put these numbers in perspective, the least viewed show on ESPN last month still drew 108,000 viewers: a repeat episode of “World Series of Poker” that ran opposite the thrilling ending of the Giants-49ers NFC Championship game on Saturday, Jan. 22 (9:30-10 p.m.).

A month into NBC Sports Network’s rebrand, and more than a year after the Peacock’s sports division took over Versus, the channel has seen viewership levels drop considerably.

Despite heavy promotion on the NBC broadcast network and a focus on higher-quality shows, viewership for NBC Sports Network is down 21 percent on a total-day basis from January 2011 to January 2012. In January 2011, Versus averaged 78,000 viewers. In January 2012, the first month of NBC Sports Network, that figure dropped to 62,000.

“We knew coming into this that if we were going to change this network and create, basically, a new sports network from scratch, we’re going to have some short-term issues ratings-wise,” said Jon Miller, president of programming at NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. “But understand at the end of the day, it’s a long race. And slow-and-steady wins it.”

What makes the ratings drop so surprising is the fact that the channel’s live event programming has performed well over the past year. The channel’s NHL telecasts are up 7 percent so far this season to average 333,000 viewers per game. IndyCar viewership for the 2011 season was up 11 percent with an average of 402,000 viewers per race.

In fact, NBC Sports says the channel’s overall prime-time viewership for the year ending Jan. 28, 2012, is up 5 percent compared with the previous year. That increase comes on the back of its live events.

So the live-event strategy seems to be working, a direction spearheaded by new NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus. But it is NBC Sports Network’s new higher-quality shows that have not found an audience yet. In fact, its new shows are pulling in lower audiences than programming from Versus, which was much cheaper to produce.

For example, the channel’s daily news show, “NBC SportsTalk,” has averaged 27,000 viewers since it launched in September. By comparison, Versus’ much-mocked daily news show “The Daily Line” nearly doubled that audience, averaging 53,000 viewers during its run.

NBC Sports Network’s much-praised show “NFL Turning Point” averaged 105,000 viewers last season. That’s roughly the same number of viewers who tuned into Versus’ widely panned NFL-themed shows “Sports Jobs with Junior Seau” (101,000 viewers) and “The T.Ocho Show” (100,000 viewers).

The low TV numbers are being closely monitored in sports TV circles, where rival networks, leagues, media buyers and cable operators are keeping close tabs on the five-year programming plan that Lazarus put into place earlier this year coinciding with the channel’s rebrand. To that end, NBC Sports held an exclusive invite-only “upfront” event for about 250 guests in Indianapolis on the Saturday before the Super Bowl to lay out the NBC Sports Group’s vision. The event attracted elite sports industry executives, including advertisers, media buyers and league commissioners like the NHL’s Gary Bettman and MLS’s Don Garber, as well as IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard.

After taking over as head of Versus’ programming, Miller canceled several shows, including “Sports Jobs with Junior Seau” and “The T.Ocho Show.” He called them off-brand and said it was hard to get advertisers to support them.

Miller pointed to “Costas Tonight” as the type of high-quality show for which he wants NBC Sports Network to be known. Despite the low viewership of its premiere episode, NBC signed Chevrolet to a significant sponsorship around the show.

“We had a lot of what I call empty rating points on our air,” Miller said. “That means there are programs that delivered big audiences, but you couldn’t monetize them. You couldn’t sell them.”

Miller pointed to the UFC as an example of an off-brand show that NBC had trouble getting advertisers to support.

The UFC, though, also illustrates the troubles NBC Sports Network is having with TV ratings. In January 2011, UFC programming averaged 124,000 viewers on Versus, a number that doubled the channel’s total day average at the time. The network’s viewership took a hit when it lost UFC programming to Fox in August.

Ad sales executives who spoke to SportsBusiness Journal on condition of anonymity because they do business with NBC said they want NBC Sports Network to succeed and become a competitor with ESPN, but they said the early low viewership is a concern.

Another challenge NBC Sports Network faces comes with outdoors programming. In January, seven of the 10 most viewed shows on NBC Sports Network were from the outdoors genre — shows like “NAPA’s North to Alaska” and “Bill Dance Outdoors.” This type of programming owes its roots to the historical foundation of the network, which launched in 1997 as the Outdoor Life Network. NBC executives have made no secret of the fact that they want to de-emphasize that programming genre, which, in turn, means de-emphasizing some of the channel’s most viewed, and most profitable, programming.

“Outdoor programming is a challenge for us,” Miller said. “It’s been in the fabric of the channel since it was OLN and Versus. We think there’s a place for it on NBC Sports Network, but certainly not at the level that it’s been.”

Miller says he plans to be patient with his channel’s new shows, saying that it takes time for viewers to find the channel. He’s more focused on acquiring rights to live events, which he said is the surest way for the network to grow. In the past month, NBC Sports has made relatively small acquisitions for the Breeders’ Cup and the Colonial Athletic Association conference. The channel will start its relationship with Major League Soccer next month. It expects to be aggressive as the rights to Major League Baseball, NASCAR and the Big East Conference are negotiated later this year.

“You grow by acquisition. You grow by bringing on more strong properties,” Miller said. “We’ve shown that we’re willing to step up to the plate and take a big swing.”

Executives at the leagues, however, told SportsBusiness Journal that the channel’s low ratings swing the negotiating advantage toward the leagues. “I hesitate to put it this way, but we know that they need us more than we need them,” one said.

In other areas, NBC Sports Network has seen some gains. Its distribution increased by 1 million homes in the past 12 months to 76.3 million homes, according to Nielsen. Cable operators pay an average of about 31 cents per subscriber per month for the channel, according to figures from SNL Kagan.

Miller is confident that the channel will start to see ratings gains. NBC-owned Golf Channel, for example, has seen its total day audience increase by 1 percent from January 2011 to January 2012 due, in large part, to being closely tied with NBC branding over the past year.

“We’ve done two things,” Miller said. “We’ve probably turned off that audience that was watching us. They’re going someplace else to get their mixed martial arts and programming like that. Now it’s incumbent upon us to start to build the audience up from scratch. Every day, we’re starting to see little victories that get us there.”


The Numbers One Year In:
An average of 62,000 viewers were tuned in to NBC Sports Network at any given time last month, down 20.5 percent from January 2011.
CABLE SPORTS NET VIEWERSHIP
Ranked by average viewership, January 2012
Network Jan. 2012 Jan. 2011 Change
ESPN 1,365,000 1,490,000 -8.4%
ESPN2 330,000 365,000 -9.6%
Speed 142,000 142,000 0.0%
NFL Network 126,000 112,000 +12.5%
NBA TV 88,000 51,000 +72.5%
Golf Channel 81,000 80,000 +1.3%
ESPNews 74,000 63,000 +17.0%
NBC Sports Network 62,000 78,000 -20.5%
Fox Soccer 30,000 31,000 -3.0%
MLB Network 19,000 15,000 +26.7%
Fuel TV* 17,000 N/A N/A
*Fuel TV did not become Nielsen rated until April 2011.
Note: Figures not available for cable networks that do not subscribe to daily Nielsen ratings, including ESPNU, ESPN Classic, NHL Network, Universal Sports, Tennis Channel, Fox College Sports, Big Ten Network, Longhorn Network and CBS Sports Network.

MOST-VIEWED PROGRAMS ON NBC SPORTS NETWORK, JANUARY 2012
PROGRAM AVG. VIEWERS
NHL games 298,000
NAPA's North to Alaska 120,000
NHL Live (postgame) 110,000
City Limits Fishing 93,000
Quest For The One 91,000

VIEWERSHIP FOR SELECT PROGRAMMING ON NBC SPORTS NETWORK
NEW SHOWS AVG. VIEWERS
NFL Turning Point 105,000
NBC Sports Talk 27,000
 
CANCELED SHOWS ON VERSUS AVG. VIEWERS
Sports Jobs with Junior Seau 101,000
The T.Ocho Show 100,000
The Daily Line 53,000
Source: SportsBusiness Daily analysis of Nielsen data
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