NEW YORK — The dark cloud over ABC’s primetime Nielsen performance the past two seasons has spread its gloom to the National Basketball Assn. games on Sunday afternoons.
ABC managed only a 2.6 rating for 14 regular-season games during the 2002-03 season, the lowest NBA average in the history of broadcast TV. This season, ABC plunged to an all-time individual low NBA rating for two straight Sundays, March 21 and 28, when each of the pro basketball games averaged a 1.1 rating.
ABC wasn’t complaining, however, because its NBA ratings, on average, were a big improvement over the really low-rated Sunday-afternoon programming ABC scheduled before 2002-03. And the second game of an NBA doubleheader April 4 featuring the L.A. Lakers and San Antonio averaged a 3.5 rating — a sizzling 35% higher than the comparable game a year ago. The first game on April 4, highlighted by shared regional games with four playoff-bound teams, averaged a 2.2 rating, 22% higher than last year’s similar game.
Lower than NBC
But ABC was still well off the pace of its broadcast predecessor NBC, whose regular-season NBA ratings had stabilized to a 2.9 rating in 2001 and 2002, the final two years of its contract with the NBA. The Peacock’s 2.9 was well below the 4.6 rating the net had averaged in 1998 with the NBA, and the network declined to renew the contract after shouldering a $300 million loss over two years.
NBC had served as the broadcast partner of Turner’s TNT and TBS since 1990-91, but its main replacement was another cable network, ESPN, with ABC as the stepchild. While ESPN and ESPN2 have scheduled 64 games this season, ABC will do 18. The bulk of the post-season games will end up on cable, although ABC will broadcast the best-of-seven NBA World Championships. (If ESPN and TNT had restricted the championships to cable TV, Congress would’ve jumped down their throats.)
TNT, ESPN thrive
While ABC is struggling in the Nielsens, both TNT and ESPN/ESPN2 are thriving as cable partners of the NBA. Although flat in total viewers, TNT’s first 48 games so far this season are up in three major demographic categories: men 18-34 (up 28%), men 18-49 (20%) and men 25-54 (17%).
ESPN/ESPN2 are up by 12% among total viewers, 4% in men 18-34 and 10% in men 18-49.
NBA commissioner David Stern “has accomplished a miracle,” said Dean Bonham, the TV-sports consultant and head of the Denver-based Bonham Group. “In one of the worst TV markets ever, Stern got more money in the new contract, and the games are getting improved ratings for the league’s cable partners.”
In the contract running from 1998-99 through 2001-02, the NBA pocketed $660 million a year from NBC and Turner. For the current contract, which runs through 2007-08, ESPN and Turner are ponying up $766.5 million a year.
Bonham cited at least two reasons for the NBA’s success on ESPN and TNT: the star power of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, two sensational rookies, and the return of the Los Angeles Lakers to prominence as one of the most potent teams in NBA history, despite the off-court problems of Kobe Bryant.