To hear all the initial reports, you would think they would be in panic mode at 30 Rock. The reports detail how the newly branded NBC Sports Network is off to a slow, slower, slowest start. It seems viewers would rather watch people shooting at innocent deer than one of its studio shows.
Oh, for the good old days of Versus.
There were several stories bemoaning the dismal ratings during the first quarter. How about this headline in the New York Post:
NBC Sports Network’s ratings take biggest drop in eight years after overhaul
The story reports ratings were off 22 percent with an average audience of 64,000 daily viewers during the first quarter.
And if that wasn’t enough, now there’s word the Fox might enter the fray and launch a new cable sports channel. That only will increase the competition and jack up the rights for properties NBC Sports Network wants to obtain.
All in all, instead of hitting the ground running, it feels more like hitting the ground face first.
Not so fast, says Jon Miller, the president of programming for NBC Sports and the NBC Sports Network. He believes the initial reports aren’t capturing the full picture. He said this isn’t about a three-month snapshot. It’s about setting up the network for the long haul.
Indeed, the network gained some momentum with increased ratings for the NHL playoffs. Through last Thursday, ratings were up 26 percent for the network’s quarterfinal coverage, averaging 676,000 viewers per game. That’s a strong number, considering the NBC Sports Network was competing somewhat against itself in the form of games also airing on CNBC and the NHL Network.
“I’ve been with NBC for 34 years and I’ve been through bad times and good times,” Miller said. ”It’s cyclical. The fact of the matter, slow and steady wins this race. You’ve got to be patient. You need to have a mission and not be distracted. It’s very easy to go for the quick hit and quick fix. The long and short of it is that it won’t work. The motto here is: First be best, then be first. Let’s do it the right way.”
In an interview, Miller laid out NBC’s plans for the rebranded network. He addresses whether it is imperative for NBC Sports Network to land Major League Baseball; the need to develop its own personalities or go after others like ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt; and his feeling that sports viewers want an alternative to ESPN, among other items.
There have been several doom and gloom stories about the network. What’s been your reaction?
Miller: We’re still very young. Only 3 months old. We made some good progress. We inherited a channel that was a lot of things to a lot of different people. We weren’t a sticky channel, That’s a big thing in TV. We need to give people a reason to come every day.
The network we took over had a lot of programming, but not a lot of connected programming. It had everything from bullriding to mixed martial arts, sports jobs, NHL, Tour De France, hunting and fishing. While each of those might have had their own dedicated followers, there was no string to that popcorn.
A lot of those programs were empty ratings points. While they might deliver a number, they weren’t really salable.
Miller: If we had kept the programming we had. Mixed martial art, the TO show, and 6,000 hours of hunting and fishing, our ratings would be fine. Our sales guys are telling us we can’t get brands, clients, sponsors to embrace this network until you change the look and feel of it.
So what’s the plan?
Miller: The three things we most focused on are live events, news,talk and information, and original programming. We landed the MLS. We think it is undervalued and has tremendous upside.
The Stanley Cup playoffs (are bringing in) viewers. There will be hundreds of hours of the Olympics (and Olympic trials) on the NBC Sports Network. When people want to see the U.S. teams play and see they’re going to be on the NBC Sports Network, that’s going to be great for us.
Original programming is one thing we can control. We’re hitting that at 500 miles per hour. It’s one area where we can make a difference and get awareness. We created Turning Point. It was nominated for an Emmy in its first year. NHL36, MLS 36: Shows that profiles the athlete. We have Costas Tonight. Ross Greenburg is doing documentaries. He’s working on a show with Jack Nicklaus on the 1962 U.S. Open.
We’ve been very busy.
That’s all well and good, but isn’t imperative for NBC Sports Network to land some portion of the new MLB deal (which expires after the 2013 season)?
Miller: We have a healthy appetite to add more programming. It’s all a question of when it becomes available. Quite honestly, our competition (ESPN), which has been around for 33 years, has done a great job at locking up stuff long-term. So you have to sit and wait patiently for the opportunity.
We’re going to be aggressive bidders for whatever quality live content comes out there. Baseball is a property that’s still in the walls at NBC. We did baseball longer, and quite honestly, as well as it ever has been done. If the opportunity comes along, and it makes sense, we’re going to be players.
We work for a company that’s not afraid to spend money, as evidenced by the fact they just spent $16 billion on (Olympics, NFL, PGA Tour, NHL, etc). They’ve shown for the right properties, they’ll step up.
What if you don’t get baseball? Won’t that be a major blow?
Miller: There are other properties that are going to be coming up. Baseball is the one right in front of us. But there’s going to be some college football and basketball available in a few years. The BCS is going to be in play. NASCAR, the NBA is going to be up. There’s a lot of product out there. As the NHL guys say: ‘We want you to get us some brothers and sisters,’ and that’s what we’re going to do.
Don’t you need to go out and get somebody like Scott Van Pelt to broaden your base from a personality perspective?
Miller: Everything is on the table. You’re going to talk to everybody. If you have a role for them, they’re going to listen. Scott Van Pelt does a good job. There are a lot of people over at ESPN who are good quality. Not just people there. There are guys at local stations.
How do you view the comparisons to ESPN?
Miller: We’re flattered and somewhat amused. ESPN is 33 years old. And they get $7 per month (per subscriber) and they are in 100 million households. We’re only 3-months old. To compare us with them is really kind of funny. You’ve got to give us a chance to develop and grow.
We do think fans out there really want to see an alternative. There are multiple news outlets like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News. We think people want alternatives for sports. They don’t want it all brought to them in one way.
So how should people digest stories about your early ratings?
Miller: The fact of the matter is the ratings aren’t there. Yeah, it’s frustrating. We know there are people out there who would love to see us fail. There’s a lot of incentive from people to see us not be successful. That’s OK. That’s the challenge.
Our feeling is we want to leave this place a lot better than we found it. We want the people who follow in our footsteps to say we set them up long term. NBC Sports Network can live forever. It can be a successful, viable network for this company.