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.
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|
|NBC Sports Network||62,000||78,000||-20.5%|
|*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|
|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|