Friday, January 18, 2008

Why NBA Television Programming Sucks: Q&A With Sports Media Watch

We've made our hatred of the way NBA National Television Programming is set up pretty obvious. But we wanted to get some answers to our questions. We did a brief Q&A with Paulsen from Sports Media Watch, a fantastic site for covering everything media related in sports.

We know that TNT is allowed to switch to any game occuring on the same night as their coverage (Tuesdays and Thursdays). And we know that ABC can switch out it's choice of game two weeks(?) in advance. Yet the networks rarely take the opportunity to switch out games between subpar opponents for more competitive and interesting (within the scope of the season) matchups. Which leads to us being spoon-fed the Heat and Bulls six times on national television between now and Feb.1. Do you feel this is more of a financial and logistics issue, a PR issue, or simply a cruel and unusual jihad upon all that is good and righteous in our hearts?

Everything has to work out almost perfectly to really have a 'flex' schedule. There cannot be any arena conflicts that would prevent moving the game to a different time, and there cannot be any schedule conflicts on the networks themselves. For example, Boston at Portland on February 24 could be a very entertaining game, but there is no way it will get on ABC. The NBA only has the 2:30 PM - 5:00 PM window that day (because of the Oscars) and games in the Pacific time zone can't start before 3 ET (12 PT), because the league avoids morning start times at all costs.

This is also the reason you shouldn't expect Pistons/Celtics on March 5 to get on national TV. The NBA has only the 9 PM - 11:30 PM window that day (ESPN has college basketball from 7:00 to 9:00), and the NBA almost never schedules regular season games on the East Coast after 8:30.

Another factor is that the networks are reluctant to drop traditionally popular teams. The Heat have been one of the most popular teams in recent years, and it will probably take until next season for the networks to scale back on the amount of their games on national TV. Remember when the Lakers missed the playoffs in 2005? They still had the maximum amount of television appearances on ABC, while the Phoenix Suns (who had the best record that year) made only one appearance -- in a regional broadcast against the Grizzlies in the middle of March Madness.

Also, in the case of TNT, it's very hard to have a flexible schedule when there are only two to three games to choose from (and usually the third game involves two horrible teams). That's the downside of having an exclusive night.

With the NBA granting TNT coverage of NBA TV network, do you feel this provides an opportunity for any real advance of the product?

Possibly. Come playoff time, TNT could produce NBA TV's national telecasts. In fact, one good idea might be to have TNT air some games regionally in the playoffs, and having one of those games air on NBA TV. (Similar to the 'reverse mirror' ABC and ESPN did for college football this year, where ABC aired two games regionally, and the game you didn't get aired on ESPN).

Generally, however, I don't expect there to be many changes for NBA TV. The graphics could change, and the location might change, but the programming would more than likely stay the same. There may be more of a TNT Overtime presence, but EJ, Kenny and Charles probably won't be coming in on a Saturday night to host NBA TV Daily (though the NBA did say in the press release announcing the agreement that NBA/TNT personalities would make appearances on NBA TV, so it's always a possibility).

One good result: NBA TV would get more promotion from TNT.

With the writer's strike continuing with no end in sight and networks struggling to create "content" (reality tv), there's been a lot of discussion about the networks picking up more NBA games. We haven't seen this happen, however. Do you have any ideas as to why we're going to be watching months and months of American Gladiators instead of the occasional game?

I have been shamelessly rooting for the writers strike to continue. While that sounds like it isn't a nice thing to do, think about this: sporting events on broadcast TV have been shrinking (with the exception of the NFL) for the past five years. I'm estimating here, but I think half as many sporting events are airing in prime time on broadcast than in 2002 (just factor in the NBA Conference Finals and MLB LCS alone). All of this is to protect entertainment fare from being pre-empted, delayed, or taken off the schedule for a month ( i.e., FOX in October).

People wonder why there are no more tripleheaders. The better question is why there aren't anymore 5:30 PM starts. The 5:30 games were always the highest rated, especially in the playoffs. To the best of my knowledge, NBC never drew a rating less than 5.0 for a 5:30 PM playoff game. To protect the Sunday night schedule (because God-forbid Americas Funniest Home Videos is pre-empted), nearly every sporting event on ABC ends at or before 6:00 PM (except for college football and two or three NASCAR races, whose timeslots extend to 7 or 7:30), which has a major impact on the ratings.

More than likely, the writers strike won't help this problem. From what I've been able to find, ABC isn't planning on moving NBA Playoff games to later start times, or even to air more of them; the schedule looks identical to previous years. One thing to watch for: NBC is going to move figure skating broadcasts into prime-time later this month, and the results of that could have an effect on whether or not more sporting events will plug holes in the schedule.

What's the main reason for why NBA games aren't given more coverage during the week?

You never want to oversaturate. Three nights of NBA games is enough. The reason TNT only airs games on one night of the week (and the reason there are so few games on Thursdays) is so that the games seem almost like a big event.

Thanks again to Paulsen for answering our questions. You can check out more of his insight at Sports Media Watch.

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