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Volume 22 No. 23
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Niche properties and studio shows seen as way to increase viewership

It’s no secret that live sports rights are the lifeblood of sports networks. Big events bring big audiences that, networks hope, spill over into live studio programming.

But network executives say they will look closer at niche sports and studio-based programming to draw audiences.

“There’s a natural sense of the properties and brands that we can create to drive viewer engagement,” said Norby

Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president of production, program scheduling and development.

As an example, Williamson referred to ESPN’s decision to hire Keith Olbermann last year as a move to expand the company’s nonevent programming. He also pointed to Colin Cowherd’s college football show, suggesting that it may expand to multiple days per week during college football season.

“Given the competition and the number of platforms that we have and the challenge on a minute-to-minute basis of how we need to differentiate our content from competitors, talent is more consistently important today than it probably has ever been in the industry,” he said.

CBS Sports Network is using a mix of niche sports and studio programming to build out its schedule. CBS Sports uses network talent such as James Brown, Jim Nantz and Bill Cowher on its cable channel, in an effort to increase viewership.

“We’re maximizing assets we have to help grow the network,” said CBS Sports President David Berson.

CBS Sports Network has tripled the number of live hours on its network over the past couple of years, and doubled the number of live events through deals with leagues and conferences like the Professional Bull Riders, Mountain West Conference and Big East. The PBR generally pulls in around 1.7 million viewers for its events on CBS broadcast network, which is a good number for a niche sport. CBS Sports Network is not Nielsen rated.

Said Berson, “You have to be smart and pick your spots. There’s stuff available, but you have to jump on it when it’s available.”