SBJ/July 1-7, 2013/Media

NHL Network on ice

Channel struggles with distribution and programming, but expects rapid growth

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Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Once the last Chicago Blackhawk had hoisted and kissed the Stanley Cup last Monday night, NBC wrapped up its broadcast and sent viewers to NBC Sports Network for its postgame show.

Over on NHL Network, a viewer would have thought the world’s top hockey league was already on its summer break.

The league-owned TV channel was showing a canned documentary. It didn’t break into that program to start its own live postgame show until NBC Sports Network was 10 minutes into its show, an eternity in terms of TV production. Viewers who wanted to sample NHL Network’s coverage immediately when NBC went off the air were left with only one option: NBCSN.

For its part, the NHL says it was honoring an agreement that allowed NBC to hand off postgame coverage to NBCSN before NHL Network went on the air. But the decision to cede the prime Stanley Cup Final postgame audience to NBCSN perpetuated a narrative that has defined the channel since its 2007 launch: that it is still not ready for prime time.

It brought up memories of the league’s mandate last fall that the network not cover the NHL’s negotiations with the NHL Players’ Association for a collective-bargaining agreement during the four-month lockout. It also stood in contrast to how other league-owned networks have operated on their championship nights. Just a few days earlier, following the series-clinching game of the NBA Finals, NBA TV went live with its postgame show immediately after ABC went off the air. NFL Network operated in the same manner when CBS wrapped up its Super Bowl coverage in February.

To be sure, NHL Network has turned into a nice business for the league. It is profitable, and league executives expect to see rapid growth during the next 12 months as it nails down distribution deals and props up its programming. Additionally, citing forthcoming Canadian media rights negotiations, which are expected to start by the fall, an NHL source said, “The NHL Network that you see today, six years in, is not necessarily the network that you’re going to see in year seven.”

But since its launch in the United States in 2007, NHL Network is not where league officials thought it would be, lagging other league-owned networks in terms of both distribution footprint and production qualities.

One of the network’s biggest challenges, ironically, has resulted from one of the league’s biggest successes. The NHL could not have envisioned, back in 2007, that the 10-year, $2 billion deal it signed with NBC in 2011 would hurt the channel’s growth, but sources say that it has. That’s because NBCSN has carried more games and shoulder programming than the league expected, a situation due in part to the fact that the NHL has been NBCSN’s biggest league partner for live game programming.

“When NBC has its exclusive games, we drive people to them and just go to taped programming,” said Bob Chesterman, NHL vice president of programming. “We’re trying to help our partner out. When ‘NHL 36’ [a 30-minute documentary following a player for 36 hours] comes out, we give NBC the first airing and then run it afterwards.”

NHL executives expect the network’s programming to be bolstered by next season’s Stadium Series — four additional outdoor games besides the Jan. 1 Winter Classic and the March 2 Heritage Classic. They believe these games will provide numerous opportunities for live shows on NHL Network. The network produced more than 1,800 hours of live programming after 5 p.m. ET this season and expects to do a lot more in 2013-14 with the return of the All-Star Game, Winter Classic and Heritage Classic.

“It makes it easy when you have all those events to cover, because we’re all over them from the day they start setting the rink up until the day they tear it down,” Chesterman said. “How much we’ll do live still has to be ironed out, but I’m sure it will be plenty.”

Multiple sources said the league also is close to a deal with the country’s second-largest cable operator, Time Warner Cable, that would move the channel to digital basic, the same tier that houses NFL Network, MLB Network and NBA TV. The league, according to cable industry sources, is using leverage from its out-of-market Center Ice package to convince Time Warner Cable to make the move: If Time Warner Cable wants access to Center Ice, it has to put NHL Network on digital basic.

Similarly, in 2008, MLB successfully tied carriage of MLB Network to its out-of-market package, Extra Innings, just before the channel’s Jan. 1, 2009, launch.

Complicating matters for the NHL Network is the fact that when it launched, the league signed 10-year carriage deals that placed the channel on sports tiers, sources said. It’s been a slow process convincing distributors to give the channel better distribution, but sources said the deals are coming.

NHL Network airs a show before Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The NHL relaunched the channel once before. In 2010, it took over programming responsibility for NHL Network from Canadian broadcaster CTV. A year later, the league committed to move into a $20 million studio NBC Sports Group was building in Stamford, Conn. But the league since has decided not to make the move because it would cut too deeply into the network’s margins, a source said. While the new digs would have resulted in higher-quality programming, it would not have provided more programming.

Chesterman said the decision to stay in hockey-mad Toronto, where the network has been based since launch, does not affect the network’s performance.

“It’s really a non-issue,” he said. “We’ve made upgrades to the studio in Toronto and that’s helped. It’s also a non-issue because the talent we get in Toronto is outstanding. You’re only as good as your talent. In the end, that’s what’s going to be our driving force.”

NHL Network initially was conceived to fill a void in the United States. League officials felt they weren’t getting enough coverage on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” Plus, NFL Network and NBA TV were providing round-the-clock coverage for obsessive fans of those leagues.

In August 2010, NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins hired Charles Coplin to the new position of executive vice president of content for the league, overseeing programming and production for NHL Network. By the end of 2010, Coplin was joined by Chesterman in the programming department, and former Time Warner Cable executive David Proper was hired as executive vice president of media strategies and distribution. In January 2011, former ESPN executive Mark Preisler was named executive producer of NHL Network. Preisler is responsible for the network’s live shows as well as the on-air talent and production staff.

Since launch, NHL Network’s on-screen successes have been with shows like “NHL Live,” a preview show with interviews and fan call-ins; “NHL on the Fly,” the wrap-around show that provides live look-ins to games; and “NHL Tonight,” which recaps completed games and has live look-ins at West Coast games. “NHL Tonight” is repeated through the following morning.

The network also has turned a healthy profit for the league. The channel is in about 43 million homes, charging 29 cents per subscriber per month, according to figures from SNL Kagan. Sources said the network made $53 million in affiliate fees and advertising in 2012 while spending $16 million in programming and production.

But those figures also reveal the major gap between the NHL and the top team sports in the United States along with their respective networks. NBA TV is in 61 million homes; NFL Network and MLB Network are in 71 million homes. MLB Network in 2012 brought in about five times as much as NHL Network in affiliate fees, and NBA TV brought in about three times as much, sources said.

Those figures are among the reasons why NHL Network closely watches its bottom line. In 2007, the network had 24 production and programming staffers. Today, it has 26.

But if NHL Network grows as league executives expect it to, its budget could grow with it. Viewers, down the line, might be able to see more immediate coverage of a team’s Stanley Cup celebration, as well.

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