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 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 more2013 Year in Review: Sports Ratings Roundup Part II

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 more2013 Year in Review: Sports Ratings Roundup Part I