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Sports rights have bucked DVR zapping, but topic doesn't yield much of a turnout

Live sports are “the last vestige of must-see programming,” per a Hollywood Radio and Television Society panel Tuesday, which helps explain the escalating rights fees for those events and proliferation of regional sports networks dedicated to specific teams and conferences.

The “must-see” label came courtesy of David Rone, Time Warner Cable President of Sport, News and Local Programming, whose company has bet billions on establishing regional networks anchored by the Los Angeles Dodgers and Lakers. Notably, he was flanked by Eric Shanks, President-COO of Fox Sports, which ultimately balked at those deals, saying the company opted to pursue a more “diversified portfolio.”

“It’s the bet that we all take,” Rone said of the longterm deal with the Dodgers, noting that the team’s new owners “saw a huge media opportunity at its core” in acquiring the franchise.

Peter Guber, who is a part owner of the Dodgers and also owns the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, joined them on the panel, and he emphasized the unique appeal of live events in general, citing NBC’s recent telecast of “The Sound of Music” as an example. Guber also spoke enthusiastically about using cellphones to create second and third-screen experiences in concert with such events, both for fans in the arena and at home.

Mark Lazarus, chairman of the NBC Sports Group, said the key for any of these major sports players remained securing distribution, maintaining that the phenomenon of cord-cutting — where people drop cable or satellite service, preferring to stream programs — is “still a long way out.”

With the countdown underway to the next Olympics, Lazarus also addressed past criticism of NBC’s delayed coverage of many Olympic events, suggesting that the Games “aren’t really sports” but rather “packaged and curated stories.” He added that those who insist on watching live will have access to live streaming, with NBC offering roughly 1,500 events on those terms this year.

Just as the Olympics aren’t sports, exactly, Shanks also stressed that regional networks are not non-biased third parties in their coverage of the teams they carry. “We’re not journalists. We’re not objective. We’re fans. We’re homers,” he said.

The panelists also agreed that the value of those networks depended heavily on the bond a given franchise enjoys with its local market, and whether distributors feel they will lose subscribers if they can’t offer the team’s games.

Despite the importance of live events and the massive rights deals paid for major leagues — due primarily to the fact fans feel compelled to watch live, unlike many other forms of programming — the event itself appeared to hold relatively little interest for the Hollywood community. Attendance lagged behind other recent HRTS events, although the causes were likely varied, including subject matter and proximity to the holidays.

(Disclosure: I was previously a part-time employee of Guber’s as the co-host of a TV Guide Network program he produced. I am also a former contributor to Foxsports.com.)

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