Cablers gain traction by tying into broadcast rights deals

Let the branding begin.

That’s the mantra at cable sports networks renamed by NBC and CBS to take advantage of rights owned by the companies that run on their bigger broadcast brothers.

The two cable webs — formerly Versus in the case of NBC Sports Network, and CBS College Sports Network (which simply dropped the “College” from its name) — are entering a brutally competitive field that’s far more cutthroat than the one in which their more established competitors, like ESPN and Fox, found themselves when they were getting started.

It took ESPN years to develop its programming sked, moving from college sports to pro, and adding football to a lineup that has included basketball and baseball. Having inherited the “Monday Night Football” franchise from parent ABC in recent years, it has become a broadcast-network rival on that night. And its X-Games brand has become the standard for fans of alternative sports.

Fox Sports networks, meanwhile, have hung their ratings hat on rights deals with local-market teams. And with the cost of those deals steadily climbing, that leaves NBC and CBS to carve out a different strategy, one in which the rebranded channels must leverage ties to their parent network in order to survive and prosper.

“There’s not a lot of properties available to us,” says NBC Sports Network programming president Jon Miller.

As part of the larger NBCU, however, the cabler has rights to an enviable mix of events. NBC Sports Network is hitching its star to the London Olympics, and plans to run better than 300 hours of coverage as the cable home to a variety of U.S. Olympic team sports. The net will air all of the U.S. men’s and women’s basketball games (except for the finals) as well as women’s soccer, volleyball, field hockey and water polo.

NBCSN is also heavily invested in hockey, via a $2 billion 10-year deal with the National Hockey League. The net aired 90 regular-season games this year (up from 52 last year), along with extensive Stanley Cup playoff coverage. It will air Games 3 and 4 of the upcoming finals, with the broadcast network getting the rest. No matter who is telecasting, however, NBCSN will provide hours of pre- and post-game coverage.

CBS Sports Network doesn’t have the same kind of market penetration as NBCSN: NBC Sports Network is connected in 79.3 million homes (as a comparison, ESPN is in more than 100 million homes) and CBSSN is in north of 46 million, many of those on a pay tier, and its ratings aren’t officially tracked by Nielsen. But the blueprint for the Eye spinoff is similar to the Peacock’s.

“The No. 1 priority of our sports division is to integrate CBS Sports Network into (coverage of) the great events we have (at the broadcast level),” says CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus. “You will see a round-the-clock presence at the Super Bowl (which CBS will air next season) for the CBS Sports Network.”

Adds David Berson, president of CBSSN, “We want to look and feel like CBS Sports in terms of graphics, animation, music and crossover talent.”

True to its roots, much of CBSSN’s programming relies heavily on college athletics, including football, basketball and hockey. It recently tied in to the broadcast network’s coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament, airing more than 100 live hours of studio programming, including pre- and post-game shows. It also has deals with the Professional Bull Riders tour and Major League Lacrosse.

Berson says multisystem operators are taking notice of the improvement in programming.

“We’re speaking to distributors daily, from Comcast to DirectTV to Dish Network — and we’re explaining that we are quite different today,” he says. “We have doubled the amount of live hours. Conversations are going quite well, and we’re providing a lot more value to each of them.”

For NBCSN, coverage of the hockey playoffs have been encouraging. In the conference quarterfinals, an average of 645,000 viewers tuned in — the highest number in 11 years (since ESPN set the mark in 2011 with 745,000). And through eight conference semifinal telecasts, the cabler is averaging 1.2 million per game — with at least one ubermarket team, the Los Angeles Kings, already heading to the Cup finals, and the possibility at press time of the New York Rangers meeting them there.

The cabler shares production facilities with NBC (both have been telecasting NHL playoff games), and the goal is to create such a seamless transition between the two entities that viewers can’t easily tell which network they’re watching.

The net also airs Major League Soccer, IndyCar Racing and the Tour de France. And with NBC Sports Group owning rights to horse racing’s Triple Crown, NBCSN gets the undercard races on those days, with the upcoming Belmont Stakes, in which I’ll Have Another attempts to become the first thoroughbred in 34 years to win all three Triple Crown races, figuring to be a ratings hit.

Still, when there isn’t a game or event programmed, viewership can drop off steeply. Yet, both understand that talk can be cheap — at least as far as production costs are concerned.

CBS Sports Network made a splash recently when it brought aboard opinionated radio talkshow host and former ESPN personality Jim Rome to topline a self-titled show that debuted April 3. (As part of his multiyear deal, Rome will also contribute to CBS and Showtime). NBCSN signed Peacock sportscaster Bob Costas to host a talkshow that airs occasionally, but results have been poor.

One industry insider says that bringing in big personalities with strong opinions is the most cost-effective way to attract viewers.

“If I were NBC Sports Network, I would make a bold offer to people like Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon (of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption”), pay them twice the money they’re making now and build the network around them.”

But Miller says talkshows — not just “Costas Tonight” but daily flagship series “NBC Sports Talk” — take time to find their groove. “These are good productions and have strong talent,” he says.

Ultimately though, execs at both networks feel the cablers’ future depends on their ability to tie themselves to their parent companies.

“NBC Sports Network will be an important destination for Olympics fans this summer as we continue to grow the network,” Miller says. Adds McManus: “We are going to be much more aggressive in associating events with CBS Sports Network.”

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