ESPN, TNT are up in total viewers

The National Basketball Assn. has one response to the critics who said that the TV audience would tune out because of the referee scandal and the sexual-harassment conviction of Knicks’ coach Isiah Thomas: Check out the Nielsen ratings.

ESPN and TNT, the networks that carry the games nationally, are up season to date in total viewers and across the board in the key adult demos (18-49, 25-54 and 18-34), some of them by double digits.

And household ratings of the Fox regional-sports networks are averaging a season-to-date 12% jump for the 17 NBA teams whose games are carried by local channels owned and operated by Fox.

Similarly, five regional-sports networks owned by Comcast are up by 20% in household ratings on average for their carriage of NBA teams including the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors.

Forget about off-season scandals, says David Levy, president of Turner Sports, which, like TNT, is part of Time Warner. “When the players suit up and take to the basketball court,” he says, “the fans start rooting for their team. That’s what it’s all about.”

Levy also points to the great start of the Boston Celtics, which he said has a national constituency.

Doug White, director of program and acquisitions for ESPN, says, “We’re just seeing a lot of good baskeball games. There are fewer injuries to star players than last year, so teams have their full complement of players on the floor.”

And more people, particularly casual fans, might gravitate to televised NBA games if the writers’ strike continues into next year, White said, adding that a long strike would lead to rerun-filled schedules of scripted entertainment shows on both broadcast and cable; a live NBA game could prove an enticing alternative.

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