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The potential of the American Sports Network

The Sinclair Broadcast Group is representative of everything wrong with broadcasting in the new millennium. During the 00′s they became notorious for repeatedly airing “documentaries” on their stations that were hit pieces on Democratic figures and causes, most notoriously one on the Swift Boat accusations against John Kerry in 2004. Even before that they were a dirty word in media consolidation circles for their use of shell companies to circumvent FCC rules prohibiting owning more than one station in a market (and later, owning more than two in a large market). Recently, they’ve gone on an acquisition binge, including DC-based Allbritton and Seattle-based Fisher, that has them bumping up against another FCC limit: if the FCC goes forward with eliminating the “UHF discount” (counting UHF stations as only half their market value against the national cap) Sinclair will be bumping up against the limit in a way that the companies owning the stations in the largest markets – and who also own the very networks Sinclair is affiliated with – will not be.

But Sinclair’s market power also gives it considerable influence over the future direction of the broadcast industry. And in that light, today’s announcement of the American Sports Network, or ASN, fits so perfectly into the framework I laid out a year ago that I can’t help but wonder whether someone at Sinclair read the version of that post I put on RabbitEars.info. Assuming it’s not so dependent on retransmission consent revenue that it results in Sinclair undermining their own nominal means of distribution, it could well be the key to the broadcast industry’s turning around its fortunes. And though it launches with only five mid-to-low-tier college conferences on board (only one of which plays FBS football), it could well prove to have a better shot at running down ESPN than any other player that has come along so far.

ASN will initially be distributed primarily across Sinclair’s CW and MyNetworkTV affiliates, and on digital subchannels on Sinclair’s other stations. The press release also mentions that “other broadcasters” are interested in airing ASN content as well. This makes me wonder whether Sinclair’s long-term plan is to turn ASN into a potential replacement for the CW and/or MyNet, especially in light of yesterday’s news of Fox’s attempt to buy Time Warner, which would have given them half-control of the CW and likely resulted in either the CW turning into CBS’ version of MyNet or the closing of MyNet entirely (and especially if they throw in Ring of Honor wrestling). The press release also mentions the potential launch of “new cable networks and digital platforms” surrounding ASN content, pending securing agreements with cable providers – which could refer to an aspect of what I had in mind last year I didn’t dare mention or even hint at, which would allow ASN, were they to set their sights much, much higher than the likes of Conference USA, to avoid the pitfalls that were the downfall of Fox Sports Net.

Throughout the 90s, many people felt that the collection of regional sports networks across the country, including the majority of them operating under the SportsChannel and Prime names, were they to join together as a single force, could put together a sports empire rivaling ESPN, given their distribution advantages and the attractive programming from local teams they could offer. But when Rupert Murdoch bought the SportsChannel and Prime networks with an eye to doing just that, the very thing that looked like so much of an asset proved to be FSN’s undoing. Any national programming FSN had was prone to being pre-empted for local teams’ games, which meant any entity with a national programming arrangement with FSN automatically had a worse deal than if they were with anyone else (something then-Pac-10 fans especially chafed at in the early-to-mid-00′s), and any national studio shows couldn’t count on a consistent time slot or even consistently airing at all. (I remember how upset I was when the Mariners played an East Coast game that pre-empted “I, Max”, the show Max Kellerman got from FSN upon leaving ESPN, entirely.) Now the rise of the RSN owned by the team playing on it, coupled with the rise of Comcast as an RSN player and aided by Fox’s own actions, has taken Fox’s once-complete hegemony over the RSN marketplace and greatly dismantled it.

Suppose Sinclair were to sign up a much bigger array of content for ASN – major professional sports and major college conferences, maybe some top mid-majors as well – and signed up affiliates from all over the country. And suppose they then launched a cable channel that amounted to an ASN national feed, taking content from their various rights deals and distributing them to a national audience. Sinclair could offer certain ASN programming “nationally” to various ASN stations, but even if that programming were to be rejected or pre-empted for something of local import, Sinclair could simply stick it on the ASN national feed, ensuring truly national distribution for the biggest content Sinclair has. Sinclair could then have an alternate feed to stick on other programming in markets where the main ASN game is airing on the local ASN station. In effect, rather than being inferior to any cable network with decent national distribution, being on the ASN national feed would be a sort of hybrid between being on a national broadcast network and being on an ESPN knockoff.

For ASN to really reach its potential, the FCC (and Congress) would need to fix the broken economics of the broadcast business, where broadcast stations and networks must either embrace the retransmission consent regime and thus see themselves as cable networks first and foremost, or inexorably lose programming to actual cable networks with their decided monetary advantages. Depending on how it’s done, and how the Internet shakes up the live video marketplace, it could completely upend the competitive landscape and destroy the potential of most of the ideas (not to mention the metaphors) in the previous paragraph. But if it happens, here’s the blueprint I would have for ASN to succeed where FSN failed and for the broadcast industry in general to bounce back from the point where its own nominal guardians have turned against it:

  • Convince teams, leagues, and conferences that between the FCC’s reforms and the impact of the Internet, the cable network market is badly oversaturated, and given the superiority of the technology of broadcasting (leaving aside the economics and regulatory landscape surrounding it), the regional sports network and league- and conference-owned network, though in better shape than most cable networks, is a bad way to go, especially considering the bitter carriage disputes surrounding them. Convince stations around the country of the same thing and that whatever obstacles they may face in the short term will be outweighed in the long term by eliminating one of the biggest barriers left to widespread cord-cutting.
  • Offer to negotiate on behalf of every English-language general-entertainment station not associated with one of the major networks (or a network seriously trying to be one of the major networks), not just ASN stations. Then make a deal with the leagues: so long as there are stations available, every game of a team that claims a given market will be televised, but any game there’s not enough stations for cannot be blacked out on the out-of-market package. This may take the form of an NFL-esque deal where ASN handles the distribution of every team’s game not on a non-ASN national platform. This is especially important for baseball, but allowing the ASN national feed to take content from any station allows the national feed to take content from any team or conference it wants without tipping the scale in negotiations towards ASN stations. (Some side notes: first, “digital subchannels” are a failure and I don’t see them surviving the upcoming FCC-mandated auction and repack; otherwise the ASN national feed might be one. Second, this would be largely dependent on CBS and Fox being open to aiding something that might take a bite out of their main networks in order to maximize the number of stations available in the largest markets; if they aren’t, the FCC might have to repeal or severely tighten the duopoly rules, which could leave Sinclair unable to run ASN. Third, the borders between conferences are blurry enough now that many areas may be within the sphere of influence of multiple conferences, so it may not be possible for ASN to handle them all alone; fortunately, more markets than you think have at least two stations of the type I discuss here even with a fifth network, especially if you count the enigmatic Ion network. And fourth, every game is more than any station has ever showed in a non-NFL professional sport, but in retrospect that practice merely opened the door for the RSN to walk in and undermine independent broadcasters, at least sooner than it could have.)
  • The existence of the ASN national feed and rise of the Internet may obviate the need for league-owned networks. Some college conferences (namely the SEC and Big Ten) may be confident of their ability to keep their conference networks going even under the new economics, given the passion of their fanbases. To counter this, export the conferences you do have to the entire country. You don’t have to give national distribution to every single conference, but if most of SEC and Big Ten territory can get ACC or Big 12 games for free (and hopefully, without needing a kludge to get them on a mobile device), and can’t do the same with the SEC and Big Ten, it could put a big scare into the both of them.
  • Don’t get involved with the NFL unless it falls in your lap, then snap it up in a heartbeat. Some of your stations are probably going to show NFL preseason games and cable-game simulcasts without your help.

The end result could be a landscape where only two cable sports networks are left: ESPN and the ASN national feed (assuming cable networks themselves still exist as we know them once the Internet is done with them). Things that don’t fit the local team-sports framework like NASCAR and golf would probably go to ESPN, and ESPN would probably still have important maj0r-league pro sports games, but events like the college football national championship game would abandon ship and return to major broadcast networks where they belong, and ASN’s combination of national distribution and local broadcast stations could give it a significant advantage in any negotiations, and they could find themselves in possession of important MLB, NBA, and – perhaps especially – NHL playoff games.

Is this a bit of a utopian pipe dream? Sure – this is the sort of idle imagining I spend way too much of my free time on and then am hesitant to put on the blog because it has so little relation to reality. This one, though, has just enough relation to reality to be an enticing vision for those that believe in broadcast television – and sometimes, a concrete yet distant vision is just what’s needed to be the impetus for change. If the future of broadcast television lies in live sports, this may be the first, halting acknowledgement of that fact – and the start of broadcast television’s comeback. The only problem is, is it too late?

Does Sports Explain Why Fox Wanted to Buy Time Warner?

We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the launch of Fox Sports 1, and despite what the people in charge have said publicly, it has to be considered a big disappointment. The most-watched programming on the channel tends to be NASCAR-related… most of which the channel already had when it was Speed, and even if it doesn’t tends to appeal mostly to people who already knew where Speed was. Except for NASCAR programming, the gap between Fox Sports 1 and ESPN has been cavernous, with FS1 even unable to catch ESPN2 and struggling to pull away from NBCSN, and despite public appeals for patience the fact that FS1 has cancelled most of its launch lineup suggests the internal attitude is something else (especially with Fox offering make-goods to FS1 advertisers on the World Series). Other than NASCAR, the channel’s brightest spots so far are probably UFC and college football, and a) UFC programming has tanked relative to the same shows on FX and ratings for college football and basketball games are generally way behind games with similar appeal on ESPN or ESPN2 and b) they haven’t had very good retention for Fox Sports Live (something NASCAR has oddly been better at). Fox’s hopes are now pinned on the baseball playoffs to further bump up FS1 ratings, and after that Fox will be hoping the World Cup and US Open golf help FS1 more than FS1 hurts them (and the World Cup is the sort of short-run event programming that is likely to bump it up in the short term but have little long-term effect, as the Olympics has for NBCSN). If Fox were to pick up Big Ten rights it would be a big help, but they’re also making a long-shot run at NBA rights – possibly in addition to ESPN and Turner rather than replacing one of them. Fox’s biggest short-term sustainable boost they have to look forward to is probably NASCAR rights – which, besides attracting an audience already familiar with the channel when it was Speed, are uniquely unlikely to check out and are sometimes openly hostile to the rest of FS1′s “stick-and-ball” lineup.

Could this help explain why Rupert Murdoch made a run at buying Time Warner in June?

Let me be upfront that I personally would dread a merger of Fox and Time Warner that would create an absolute behemoth, place CNN under the Fox umbrella, and further degrade broadcast television by removing quite possibly the only company with the means and motivation to launch a true fifth network (but that’s another story) and, by inheriting Time Warner’s partnership in the CW, leave Fox with little motivation to keep running MyNetworkTV. (Though if that leaves Tribune to go without the CW, it might actually turn out to be the best possible outcome.) But strictly from a sports perspective, even though some people have naively wondered whether CBS and Time Warner would merge based on their partnerships on March Madness and the CW and their complementary sports assets and lack of direct competition outside premium cable channels, a Fox-Time Warner merger makes a lot more sense.

From the dawn of cable television, Turner has been a leader in sports programming, not being passed by ESPN until the 90s, and for all the talk of efforts by Fox, NBC, and others to make a run at ESPN, Turner has remained the company with the strongest assets to challenge ESPN of anyone, and TBS and TNT have remained the biggest non-ESPN sports destinations on cable, even with the impending loss of NASCAR programming and cutting back on MLB. Suppose Fox were to acquire Time Warner and move all the sports programming currently on TBS and TNT to FS1. Suddenly FS1 would have:

  • Turner’s high-profile critically-acclaimed NBA coverage, including Marv Albert and Charles Barkley, with games running all the way to the conference finals plus the NBA All-Star Game, control of NBATV as well, and a pretty good case to steal the broadcast component of the package away from ABC during the next negotiations (a potential nightmare scenario for the NHL)
  • Control over the ENTIRE MLB postseason aside from one measly wild-card game on ESPN
  • Control of much of March Madness and possibly the ability to muscle CBS out of the Tournament, keeping March Madness to itself on Fox, FS1, and some other channels (FX and/or Fox News or CNN could replace TBS or TNT; if the NCAA wasn’t willing to accept CBS Sports Network they’re unlikely to accept FS2 as is) and maybe bringing Gus Johnson back to the event that made him famous
  • The first two rounds of the PGA Championship and some auxillary coverage of the later two rounds, adding some meat to Fox’s golf-coverage bones
  • Fox would also take over HBO and its sports coverage, possibly meaning higher-profile boxing cards on FS1 and/or UFC cards on HBO

Again, I would hope this merger doesn’t happen – the general consensus is that just because Murdoch was told “no” now doesn’t mean he’s going to take that for an answer – but it wouldn’t be the first time sports was a big impetus for a larger media deal (see Comcast’s hostile takeover attempt of Disney and later actual acquisition of NBC) and would give ESPN some legitimate reason to worry about a potential challenger to their throne, something FS1 has largely failed at so far.

(The potential irony? If all proposed media deals go through, Time Warner’s former cable division could end up owned by a direct competitor.)

2013 Year in Review: Sports Ratings Roundup Part II

Continuing from Friday’s Part I, here is every event I know of that:

  • Is known to have over a million viewers (though that really ends up meaning 980k) but less than a 1.5 household rating, or
  • Is one of a number of other events I consider to be interesting and relevant, usually the most-watched event of a particular sport on a given network or its championship event.

This is the part that is affected by the Son of the Bronx shutdown. The purpose of these posts is to establish the popularity of various sports, and going down to 2.0 or 1.5 establishes it for only the very biggest. For those events that have niche audiences even for the networks that are televising them, this may have been my only chance to establish viewership levels for them that could be compared apples-to-apples to other events. This is especially the case for the MLS and WNBA, two leagues that receive press well out of proportion to their actual popularity. (The MLS Cup would have gotten over a million viewers if you count ESPN and UniMas together, but I explained in Part I why I don’t put much stock in that.)

This time PPV buyrates are put in the viewership column. As before, my sources are TVbytheNumbers, The Futon Critic, Sports Media Watch, SportsBusiness Daily, and Son of the Bronx. Click here to learn more about how to read the charts. Read More »

2013 Year in Review: Sports Ratings Roundup Part I

In 2009 I did a sports ratings roundup post for events in 2008, and I intended to do it again for 2009 but let my RSS feeds drop off. Last year, however, I decided to not only take it up again, but buckle down and extend the post as far down as I could take it. As it turned out, last year was the best possible year to do this, even without quadrennial events like the Olympics or World Cup, as it’s the only full calendar year that Son of the Bronx was posting full ratings for every show of any kind on the all-sports networks before he shut the blog down some months ago. Given the range I’m working with, the impact of SotB on this list is fairly minimal (especially with TVbytheNumbers now doing Saturday cable ratings, which they weren’t doing for much of 2013, and The Futon Critic ignoring most college basketball games in 2012-13 but including them this past year), but household ratings for a number of events on the ESPNs or NBCSN might not be here if it weren’t for him, and my ambitions to do several sport-specific lists might be dashed. (SotB is now posting just the top 10 programs from each network on Awful Announcing, which is good for some purposes but not for others, especially where regular ESPN is concerned and especially during football season.)

With that out of the way, with or without SotB, the remarkable scope of the coverage TVBTN and The Futon Critic have given to cable networks have meant that the biggest obstacle to this list’s construction is actually daytime broadcast events; SportsBusiness Daily’s reports of viewership for those events are often rounded to the ten-thousands or hundred-thousands place, when viewership isn’t omitted entirely. I originally hoped to be able to extend the list well beyond Sports Media Watch’s year-end Top 50 Most-Watched Sports Events lists (one that includes the NFL and one that doesn’t), but found out there’s a good reason SMW’s lists stopped where they did. CBS dissuaded me; they are particularly prone to not report viewership for their events, and two in particular had a capping effect on SMW’s list. A grand total of two NFL singleheader windows prevented an overall most-watched list from extending all the way down to encompass the entire non-NFL list, which was itself stopped by, of all things, the March Madness selection show. I decided to get around that by ordering the list by the more generally available (at least with SotB) household rating, as my previous list was, with ties broken by viewership, but I’ve placed any event without viewers reported at the bottom of all events with its rating, sorted by date, as a way of naming and shaming those events and networks that don’t provide as much information as they should.

For even that to be as useful as it could be, I had to omit any events on Spanish-language networks; the fact that SBD, for some reason, didn’t report any ratings or viewership for Univision’s coverage of the Confederations Cup, even when Univision itself put out press releases with that information for some matches (but not with very specific viewership or any household ratings), forced the issue there. As much as Univision likes to tout how it’s on par with the four major networks and some people like to claim that assessing the popularity of sports events in this country isn’t complete without Spanish-language television, I really think – and I don’t mean this to be racist or culturally imperialistic – that Spanish-language TV should be treated as though it were a different country. Going by the Spanish-language ratings, you’d think the Mexican national team was as if not more popular than the US one, and that Liga MX is by far the most popular club soccer league in this country, far outpacing the Premier League. Cultural assimilation may change those things, so they may not translate to English-language TV in the long term. For better or worse, Spanish speakers aren’t part of or reflected in the conversation about soccer in this country, let alone sports in general, for obvious reasons. Yes, many English speakers turn on Univision for big events, but that may be changing with the popularity of the EPL (not as widely available in Spanish) and ESPN’s subsequent embrace of British commentators. Most notable Spanish-language numbers should be available here.

CBS also served to put up a limit on how far I could go with my English-only household-rating-focused approach, but for a different reason that had nothing to do with them directly. SBD, for whatever reason, will be unable to post broadcast ratings on Friday if the end-of-week Nielsen ratings are delayed a single day by holidays (those numbers usually come out on Tuesday on non-holiday weeks so SBD should have time to get them by Thursday night even with a delay but whatever), and when that happens SBD will just give up and not put out the ratings at all rather than, say, posting them on Monday, preferring to devote time on Monday to the useless overnights. Where this really hurt was on Labor Day Weekend, when CBS had a pretty hype-worthy US Open match between Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens on the Sunday thereof that I wasn’t able to find ratings or viewership for.

Based on CBS’ numbers for Labor Day itself that SBD did report (since it fell into the following Nielsen week), and comparing them to the overnights CBS got for the same time slot, I determined that CBS’ viewership numbers for the Williams-Stephens match and surrounding timeslot was probably in the 2 million range, so I decided to cap the list at a 1.5 household rating, which seemed pretty safe but isn’t much of an improvement over the 2.0 mark I put up last time. I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to go even that low in the future, though, although the popular events get pretty weird fast once you get below or even at 1.5, especially on broadcast, some of which you’ll see below.

With all that as a preamble, here are the English-language numbers for every sporting event of 2013 with a household rating between 7.5 and 1.5. Any event with a higher rating would appear on my Top 200 Live Events list. Dark blue is the NFL, light blue college football, orange college basketball, red the NBA, dark red NASCAR, purple MLB, green golf, and anything else is white. I’ve also translated boxing and UFC PPV buyrates to household ratings for this chart only. Click here to learn more about how to read the charts. Read More »

The 200 Most-Watched Live Events of 2013

If, as I’ve suggested, the only purpose of linear television going forward will be to show live events that many people want to watch at the same time, then ratings for live events become a particularly important category to look at, because they form the underpinning of everything else. So here are the 200 most-viewed live programs of 2013 to my knowledge, with the top 50 ranked.

Breaking news outside of primetime (which basically means outside the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bomber), and other non-primetime news events such as the funeral for Nelson Mandela, are not counted because I couldn’t find any numbers for them. I’ve also guesstimated where to put the Tournament of Roses Parade and one NFL window because viewers (or at least, reliable viewer numbers) weren’t reported for them. I also assumed all non-audition episodes of American Idol were live, but marked the Hollywood and Vegas episodes with question marks. Events in red are news events; in blue are NFL games; in green are other sports events; in orange are awards shows; in purple are reality shows; and all other events are white. Read More »

2013 UFC and MMA Ratings Wrap-Up

Here are the top 50 most-watched live MMA cards of 2013, 30 from UFC and 20 from Bellator, with prelims and main cards separated out. Below that are full numbers for every UFC card not on Fuel/FS2 in chronological order. See here for all Fuel/FS2 main cards (not prelims) as well as numbers for every episode of The Ultimate Fighter.

Numbers for boxing are not consistently well-reported with enough specificity for my tastes, but this contains, to my knowledge, viewership for every boxing match of 2013 on HBO and Showtime with over a million viewers.

Viewership and household ratings for Fox Sports 1 cards from Son of the Bronx. Viewership and household ratings for Fox and some other cards from SportsBusiness Daily. Where 18-49 ratings appear, viewership and 18-49 ratings from The Futon Critic, with some from TVbytheNumbers. PPV buyrates from Wikipedia. Other numbers from various other sources. Click here to learn more about how to read the charts. Read More »

Is There a Place for Common Sense in Supreme Court Decisions?

The Supreme Court Wednesday ruled 6-3 against Aereo, declaring the start-up’s array of miniature antennas available for rent to consumers in violation of copyright law. Astoundingly, the three dissenters were Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, three of the court’s more conservative members. If you had to pick one person to symbolize the modern Supreme Court’s tendency to favor moneyed interests over ordinary Americans, the law, intent of the Constitution, and precedent be damned, it would probably be Scalia, followed by Thomas, then Alito and Chief Justice Roberts neck-in-neck. I would never have expected the conservatives to actually believe what they say they do enough to stand with the consumer and the scrappy, innovative start-up at the expense of the big, multi-national conglomerates, and as much as Democratic politicians may be in bed with Hollywood, I never would have expected every last one of the liberal justices to stand with the big corporations against the ordinary American. I know President Obama’s Justice Department filed a brief supporting broadcasters, but that was widely seen as disappointing, not sadly expected; I suspect this is an issue on which the Democratic decision-makers are well out of step with their rank and file. Maybe I’m just naïve (support in Congress and opposition among the public to SOPA was, after all, largely bipartisan), but it would be hard for me to deal with it if this turned out to be an issue on which I stand with conservatives and against Democrats.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. Rather, I want to talk about the tendency for pro-Aereo corners of the blogosphere (as well as Aereo itself) to decry the decision as being obviously wrong, to gloss over the sketchier elements of what Aereo was trying to do, take its own description of it at face value, and dismiss the majority’s reasoning as the “looks-like-a-duck test“, to speak of Aereo’s setup being designed to follow the law as opposed to “going around” it as though that were more than a semantic distinction. One of the things Americans don’t like about the legal system is the tendency to create overly complicated documents written in horrendously obtuse language with no resemblance to anything ordinary Americans could recognize so that people can get off on obscure technicalities. But when the Supreme Court finally looks past the technicalities and boils things down to what they actually are, but we happen to be on the side that wanted to take advantage of those technicalities, suddenly we want the court to follow the obtuse legal language, ignore what we’re actually trying to do, and let us skirt through the loophole?

I personally felt that, while Aereo was clearly trying to take advantage of a loophole in the law, it was the place of Congress, not the Supreme Court, to close it, and it sounds like the commenters on (the very liberal) Daily Kos agree with me. But I don’t think we’re giving the position the majority accepted enough credit. Leaving aside the technicalities of how it all works, what Aereo was selling was the ability to watch broadcast television stations, regardless of whether you had the ability to view them at your current location if you had an antenna, indeed without you needing to worry about having an antenna or where it was located. You, the viewer, don’t see where Aereo’s antenna is and don’t even necessarily know anything about where Aereo is getting the signals from. All you know is that you are giving Aereo money and they are supplying you with a bunch of television channels you may or may not be able to receive otherwise. Boiled down to those facts, there really is very little difference between Aereo and basic cable service (and some of the things Aereo had said about potentially carrying cable channels didn’t really help their case).

What this shows is that our communications and copyright laws are woefully outdated and rooted in assumptions that don’t hold water, that failed to anticipate technological developments that rendered the technological distinctions encoded in the law obsolete. The entire Aereo affair had a company resorting to technological contortions to provide a fairly basic service there was a clear demand for and broadcasters being undermined by the very nature of, and wanting to be rid of, their own nominal method of delivery, their own neglect of which helped create the demand for Aereo in the first place (and while they’ve won this battle, they may ultimately lose the war). The court said that if Aereo wanted relief they should go to Congress when they should have said that to the broadcasters, not only because that would have been the right approach but because the broadcasters would likely have been more able to get that relief. But putting the onus on Aereo does give Congress incentive to clear up a regulatory framework that assumes the primacy of the obsolete technology of cable television and undermines the potential of broadcasting, while creating perverse and unintentional disincentives for maximizing the distribution of content.

2013 College Football Ratings Wrap-Up

Obviously I’m several months late with this, but here are the ratings and viewership for all 347 FBS football games on a Nielsen-rated national network for the 2013 season (note that CBS Sports Network is not rated by Nielsen). Sports Media Watch has a list ordered by week; this list is ordered by number of viewers, with the number in gray interpolated. Bowl games are separated out into a separate list. All times Eastern.

Ratings and viewership for broadcast networks from SportsBusiness Daily and Sports Media Watch, for cable networks from Son of the Bronx. 18-49 ratings, when available, from TVbytheNumbers and The Futon Critic. Read More »

Demystifying Sports Ratings

It occurs to me that there’s a massive amount of ignorance about how TV ratings actually work among those that pay attention to sports ratings, even among those that should know the most about them. I’ve put up a FAQ that I hope will aid people in reading my ratings posts, as I hope to spew out a whole bunch of them next week, but I want to clear up a few misconceptions here in hopes of elevating the discourse over sports ratings.

The level of ignorance is so bad that this sort of nonsense can spread almost unchecked across social media:

But Paulsen is himself part of the problem here: he regularly posts the overnight ratings from sports events when they come out and compares them to overnight ratings from past years, even though they’re next to useless and most people actually within the industry don’t even pay attention to them anymore. I seem to recall reading that he actually knows better, but still posts overnight ratings because networks – capitalizing on the general ignorance of how ratings actually work – will tout them regularly. But I don’t think that applies to SportsBusiness Daily, which posts overnight ratings for sports events on broadcast every Monday, as though anyone beyond its more ignorant clientele cares.

People who talk about general sports ratings often show a disappointing level of ignorance, but on this front they’re leaps and bounds ahead of the sports world. Overnight ratings, which only reflect viewership within the 56 “metered markets”, are ignored so much that TV Media Insights is pretty much the only general ratings site that regularly reports them, at least on broadcast. Most everyone else is willing to wait the few hours it takes for the fast national ratings to show up around 8 AM ET (which some sites confusingly label “overnight” ratings). Moreover, the fast national ratings aren’t always as accurate as some people would have you believe by referring to “final” ratings “according to Nielsen fast nationals”; there are almost always at least some adjustments from the fast nationals to the final ratings for broadcast primetime shows, and for sports and other live events on broadcast in primetime in particular the fast nationals are next to useless because they incorporate what would be on a given station on the West Coast at the scheduled time, so a sports event at 8 PM ET, which is 5 PM PT, would incorporate whatever aired on a West Coast station at 8 PM PT into the fast nationals.

Part of the reason no one pays any attention to overnight ratings is that the total viewership and household rating numbers that tend to be the most widely available, the latter of which is all that overnight ratings supply, are themselves pretty much useless for the purposes that actually matter – a beauty pageant, something to tout in a press release, and little more. Nielsen exists to provide a benchmark for networks to sell ad space, and networks in this day and age are in the business of selling demographics, not general viewers – especially the 18-49 demographic everyone knows is valuable but don’t generally grasp how valuable. TVbytheNumbers has been able, for a few years now, to predict the fate of (openly) scripted shows on broadcast television based solely on the 18-49 rating, without any reference to total viewership or household rating, and perhaps as a result it and The Futon Critic report only total viewers and 18-49 rating in their daily ratings posts, not household rating. Of course, different networks target different demographics based on what audiences they’re targeting, but what matters to the broadcast networks is particularly relevant here because broadcast networks at least nominally don’t target any audience in particular (and sports has to compete for space on the broadcast networks with pretty much any other kind of programming), so the hegemony of the 18-49 demographic is determined by the free market alone, and the boom in sports rights fees is precisely (in part) the result of sports’ ability to attract the 18-49 demographic like little else, the hegemony of which – as I explained in my Nexus of Television and Sports in Transition series – is in this day and age the result of the fact that 18-49-year-olds simply watch less television than anyone else. So when Paulsen says this…

…he’s implying the 6.8 isn’t the “real” ratings number for the NBA Finals, when – from the perspective of the actual decision-makers – it might be more “real” than the household rating he’s referring to. As if to underscore the point about the rarity of the 18-49 demographic, that household rating was a 10.3, meaning the 18-49 rating was maybe two-thirds of the household rating – and the NBA is known as a league that disproportionately attracts 18-49-year-olds compared to other properties. But the only sources that regularly report 18-49 ratings are the general ratings sites I referred to earlier, The Futon Critic and TVbytheNumbers. Anything else comes from network press releases. To my knowledge, no site that regularly talks specifically about sports ratings pays any attention to 18-49 ratings.

This also helps explain why people so often tend to overstate the importance of the broadcast/cable distinction, as though it were still the 90s. Yes, any given sports event will have a substantial drop-off when it moves from broadcast to cable, but teams, leagues, and networks have proven time and again since 2008 that this matters little to them, that the dropoff isn’t substantial enough to overcome the ability to collect subscription fees from cable customers. A naïve reading of the ratings for the Stanley Cup Final would look at the total viewer and household numbers – 4.777/3.0, 6.413/3.7, 2.893/1.7, 3.383/2.0, 6.021/3.7 – and conclude that the two games on NBCSN are suffering horribly and should move to broadcast, and the fact that they aren’t on broadcast like all the other big events (except the BCS, college football playoff, Final Four, Monday Night Football, most of the World Cup including quite possibly all the American matches…) reflects poorly on the NHL. But when you look at the 18-49 ratings – 1.90, 2.10, 1.16, 1.32, 2.31 – the dropoff, while still there, isn’t quite as severe, especially if you take Game 1 (which was neither a potential series-ender nor had a Triple Crown attempt in the Belmont Stakes as a lead-in) as the broadcast baseline, and it becomes easier to see why NBC and the NHL would take lower ratings for two games in exchange for keeping people tied to their cable subscription, and keeping NBCSN in demand for cable operators. For a variety of reasons, some obvious some not, the people that advertisers actually want to reach tend disproportionately to be cable subscribers; cord-cutting hasn’t yet caught on enough to change that calculus, and sports fans are disproportionately unlikely to cut the cord precisely because so many sports events are on cable now.

I’m going to try to come up with a formula to try and calculate what rating a sports event on cable would get if it aired on broadcast, but for a number of reasons comparing the popularity of sports events between broadcast and cable directly, or even from one cable network to the other, is in large measure a fool’s errand, and comparisons are best made within one network. (Even on broadcast, observe the trouble Fox has had getting people to watch nominally-marquee college football games.) Just moving from ESPN to ESPN2 results in a pretty substantial dropoff for all but the most can’t-miss sporting events, and NBCSN and Fox Sports 1 are lagging behind both ESPNs substantially despite not really being that far behind in distribution. I’ve observed a trend where, once someone starts watching something, they don’t always turn the set off until a good long while after the event is over; a really popular event like an NFL game can have ripple effects on a network’s ratings for hours afterward. Even middle-of-the-night re-airs on ESPN can beat just about anything on ESPN2 or any other network; NASCAR, college football, and the World Cup are the only things on ESPN2 that can regularly stand up to anything the powers that be decide to put on ESPN. (This becomes really obvious during college basketball season, when there’s no logical reason why games on ESPN should be so consistently far ahead of games on ESPN2, even when they’re both power-conference games with little discernible difference between them.)

TV ratings have become an increasingly watched scoreboard as the financial stakes in the sports TV business continue to ratchet up, but people seem to be unclear on how to read them or what their limitations are. I hope to increase my coverage of sports ratings at least back to the level they were at in mid-to-late 2013 in upcoming weeks (sans the Studio Show Scorecard), and I hope you’re able to recognize what the ratings actually say – and what they don’t – going in.

2013 Soccer Ratings Wrap-Up

As the World Cup starts to rev into gear, here are the top 10 most-viewed soccer matches of 2013 in both English and Spanish as well as regardless of language.

The World Cup qualifying matches between the United States and Mexico were two of the three most-watched soccer matches in 2013 across languages, bracketing the FIFA Confederations Cup final between Brazil and Spain, which was the most popular match not to involve either the American or Mexican national teams for both languages. The match at Stadio Azteca was the second-most popular match in each individual language and the most popular overall; the Confederations Cup final was fourth-most popular in English and fifth in Spanish. The CONCACAF Gold Cup final between the USA and Panama likely edged out the Costa Rica-Mexico qualifying match as the most popular match to involve only one of the two national teams, with the caveat that the Costa Rica-Mexico numbers include only viewership on Telemundo; both matches were the most popular in their respective languages, though it is not conclusive whether the Gold Cup final beat Mexico-USA in English. The Liga MX final between Club America and Cruz Azul was the most popular club match (and the third-most popular match in Spanish overall), while the UEFA Champions League final was the most popular club match in English.

Numbers for matches on broadcast from Sports Business Daily. Numbers for FIFA Confederations Cup matches, or any other match where household ratings are not available, on Univision and UniMas from Univision press releases. 18-49 numbers for Telemundo broadcasts from Telemundo press releases. Numbers for matches on ESPN networks from Son of the Bronx. 18-49 numbers for English-language broadcasts, when available, from TVbytheNumbers or The Futon Critic. Numbers for matches on Fox Soccer are not available.

Top 25 Most-Viewed Soccer Matches of 2013 Regardless of Language

  Vwr (mil) HH 18-49 Time Net
1 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Mexico v. United States



3/26 10:30 PM

2 FIFA Confederations Cup Final:
Brazil v. Spain



6/30 6:00 PM

3 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
United States v. Mexico




9/10 8:00 PM

4 CONCACAF Gold Cup Final:
United States v. Panama


7/28 3:30 PM

5 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Costa Rica v. Mexico



10/15 9:15 PM

6 Liga MX Final:
Club America v. Cruz Azul



5/26 8:50 PM

7 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Mexico v. Panama



10/11 9:00 PM

8 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Mexico v. New Zealand




11/13 3:15 PM

9 FIFA Confederations Cup:
Mexico v. Italy


6/16 2:45 PM

10 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Mexico v. Honduras



9/6 9:15 PM

11 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
New Zealand v. Mexico




11/20 1:00 AM

12 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Mexico v. Jamaica



2/6 9:15 PM

13 Liga MX Apertura Final:
Leon v. Club America, Leg 2




12/15 6:50 PM

14 CONCACAF Gold Cup Semifinal:
Panama v. Mexico



7/24 9:36 PM

15 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Mexico v. Costa Rica




6/11 7:54 PM

16 FIFA Confederations Cup:
Brazil v. Mexico


6/19 3:00 PM

17 FIFA Confederations Cup:
Japan v. Mexico


6/22 3:00 PM

18 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Jamaica v. Mexico




6/4 9:15 PM

19 Liga MX Apertura Final:
Leon v. Club America, Leg 1





20 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
United States v. Panama




6/11 10:00 PM

21 CONCACAF Gold Cup Quarterfinal:
Mexico v. Trinidad and Tobago



7/20 6:11 PM

22 FIFA Confederations Cup Third Place:
Uruguay v. Italy


6/30 12:00 PM

23 Liga MX: CD Guadalajara v. Club America



3/31 9:55 PM

24 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Panama v. Mexico




6/9 9:45 PM

25 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
United States v. Honduras



6/18 8:30 PM


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