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NBC, CBS Pace Themselves in Cable Sports

Each net has significantly increased its number of live programming hours, but do they have the killer content they need?

As Fox revs up its revamped cable sports networks in a bid to chase down ESPN, two competitors are staying in their lanes.

NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network are years into their maturation process and appear to be more focused than ever. Each recently streamlined its name, significantly increased its number of live programming hours, and is aggressively looking for ways to deliver more “shoulder programming” on the backs of its parent broadcaster’s marquee events.

“Any time there are more folks doing similar things, the added competition just makes us all better,” says David Berson, president of CBS Sports and its cable offshoot, which had been CBS College Sports Network from 2008 to 2011. “It forces everybody to step up their games and innovate.”

For CBSSN, which is in about 50 million homes (up from about 38 million two years ago), a key moment came in uniting all of CBS Sports under Berson, who was tapped president of CBS Sports in June after running the cable network’s sports division since 2011.

Berson points to Jim Rome’s weeknight show and the launch earlier this year of a 24/7 CBS Sports Radio national network as part of an effort to better use all of the Eye’s assets and talent.

“We feel we’ve truly integrated CBS Sports,” he says. “One team programming across all the various platforms makes a big difference.”

In addition to college football, the net’s lineup includes the Pro Bowlers Assn., Major League Lacrosse and the Arena Football League. Nielsen ratings for CBSSN aren’t released to the press.

Rick Gentile, exec producer of CBS Sports through much of the 1990s, says that while CBSSN has grown, it should have more college basketball on air, especially during March Madness — a property it shares with Turner Sports.

“CBS missed an unbelievably golden opportunity when the NCAA (basketball) negotiations were happening,” says Gentile, now an industry analyst. “That the three Turner networks were able to put on all those games, the fact that Tru came in, came at the expense of CBS Sports Network.”

NBC Sports Network is further along in its gameplan, even though the network (formerly Versus, a Comcast net) only came under the Peacock’s purview in 2011. NBCSN is available in 80 million homes, and coming off record second-quarter ratings, thanks to hockey’s Stanley Cup playoffs.

Through the rest of the year, with a full slate of NHL action, English Premier League soccer and Formula One racing, as well as original series like “Shark Hunters,” NBCSN will present roughly 1,100 hours of live programming — about 75% more than last year (629).

“NBCSN has compelling Olympics programming, Tour de France (cycling), hockey,” Gentile says. “They have events you have to go there to watch.”

That’s not by coincidence.

“We are very strategic in the properties we acquire,” says Jon Miller, president of NBC Sports and NBCSN. “We look for sports that lead to great storytelling that we can showcase in an exclusive way. With something like MLB, which we decided not to bid for, there’s so much product, it’s tough to make special.”

While Miller keeps one eye on Sochi, with the Winter Olympics just six months away and the Peacock the rights-holder, soccer is what’s mostly keeping him up at night. NBC paid $250 million for England’s top circuit — Barclay’s Premier League — and the cabler alone will air 57 matches.

“There’s a big challenge ahead of us in showing that we can do the Premier League,” Miller says. “I see it as an inflection point for us.”

Whether it helps the network increase its distance from CBSSN and place itself closer to ESPN is a goal for another day.

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