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League Nets Try to Get More Out of Games

1/23/2012 12:01 AM Eastern

Programming a network run
by a pro sports league is, on one level,
extremely simple: Dedicate time and
resources to live coverage of games
and surround them with news coverage,
previews, updates, live cut-ins and
post-game analysis.

Then fill in the gaps with countdown
list series, which can be produced
cheaply, repurposing footage from the
archives. All four major sports league
networks — NFL Network, MLB Network,
NBA TV and NHL Networks —
follow this same basic formula. But
even that’s not enough to fill the screen
24/7 in or out of season. So the networks
continue exploring new ways to fill out
the fringes of their schedules.

Given the recent popularity of sports documentaries
for ESPN, HBO Sports and other programmers, producer
Eric Drath, who won an Emmy for the HBO boxing documentary
Assault in the Ring, said there are opportunities
for the league networks to “get a wider audience and
grow the fan base.

“There are so many storylines out there with great human
interest, he said. “Sports fans like a good story.”
But doing such projects right “costs a lot of money,” he
acknowledged.

DOCS A STAPLE

All the networks have produced documentaries, like MLB
Network’s Behind the Seams, a series of specials that examine
such topics as how pitching has changed over time.
But most use archival footage and talking heads from easily
accessible players. More ambitious documentaries require
original footage, cost money and remain in confl ict
with the networks’ goals.

“Sure, you can re-run documentaries a number of times
and make your money back eventually, but it’s not what
the cable operators are paying for,” industry analyst John
Mansell, president of John Mansell Associates, said.

Ancillary programming is an afterthought for a reason,
according to Mansell.

“Games are where the money is,” he said. “I suppose
you could do more original programming, but during the
season, the most interest is in live games and surrounding
coverage. The other programming garners some interest,
but really it’s filler.”

Finding time for series during the season when viewership
is highest remains tricky. Games, news and analysis
remain the “heart and soul of the network, and there are
only so many hours in a day,” NBA Digital senior vice president
and general manager Christina Miller, who oversees
NBA TV, said.

Lee Berke, president of LHB Sports, Entertainment and
Media, agreed, and noted that especially for the National
Basketball Association, National Hockey League and
Major League Baseball, the main goal of ancillary programming
is to “mine the archives in a cost-effective
way” because the main job is to “cover the time between
games.”

Network executives concede the games are the big draw.
“We want to spend our money where the most viewers are
watching,” NHL Network executive vice president of content
Charles Coplin said.

NFL Network senior vice president for production and
programming Mark Quenzel added, “The owners and the
league are incredibly supportive, but you can’t ask for everything,
and the games get a lot of the budget.”

The National Football League’s channel is something of
an exception in all regards. Because the channel has just
an eight-game slate of Thursday Night Football contests —
and because pro football itself is a once-a-week, 17-week
affair for each team — there’s more time to fill between
games. However, NFL Films — the league’s legendary documentary
unit — offers a vast archive of game films and
behind-the-scenes footage, as well as production values
to which the others can only aspire.

The NFL Films aesthetic informs such series as the
Sports Emmy Award-winning America’s Game, which included
an episode profiling each Super Bowl winner, and
the new biographical series A Football Life. (That show debuted
in the fall with a two-part look at New England Patriots
coach Bill Belichick, who spent a whole season wired
for sound for the project.)

GETTING INNOVATIVE

Still, while countdown-type shows will remain in the
lineup, an evolution is taking place, especially as alternative
viewing
platforms grow
in importance.
The networks
are looking either
internally
or to product
ion partners
such as MLB
Productions,
NBA Entertainment
and
Turner Sports
for more innovative
ideas
— and how to
make those
concepts work on a budget.

“The networks have evolved much like any other network,
building out as you gain momentum,” NBA Digital’s
Miller said. As distribution grows, so does the demand for
more original programming.

NBA TV last year added news magazine True NBA, hosted
by CNN’s John King, and this season added a roundtable
program (produced by Turner Sports) called Open
Court
, featuring former stars like Shaquille O’Neal and
Reggie Miller.

Miller said that some documentaries — even a multipartner
production or a series — could be part of NBA TV’s
programming mix in the near future. The network, which
also shows hoops-centric Hollywood films, views these
programs as “building blocks,” she said.

“We want to get fans used to spending
more time watching us when the
games aren’t on so we need a balanced
mix of programming,” said Miller.

NFL Network may even push into a
surprising new daypart, Quenzel said,
considering a morning show along the
lines of Golf Channel’s Morning Drive.
“We want something new and fresh for
our fans,” he said.

MLB Network president Tony Petitti
says his network’s latest project is Baseball
IQ
, a game show that debuts this
week. He also sees NBA’s Open Court
as a concept the diamond network may
follow. “I think you’ll see more of that
type of roundtable programming here,
too,” he said.

Berke said Open Court works because
it features big names, but is inexpensive to produce. The
networks are also beginning to look for other ways to manage
their budgets.

In the fall, the NHL created NHL Original Productions,
partnering with former HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg;
its first effort is NHL 36, which follows a current star
for 36 hours.

However, to make the finances work, NHL 36 runs first
on NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus), prior to live
games featuring the profiled player, before repeating on
NHL Network. Similarly, the reality series Oil Change is
produced for Canadian television before reaching the NHL
Network.

“It’s a good economic model for us,” Coplin said.

PROMOTION STILL CRITICAL

The need to promote the sport is crucial to keep in mind,
Quenzel noted. The NFL’s newest program, NFL Honors,
will air on NBC on Feb. 4, the day before that network
airs Super Bowl XLVI. NFL Network will weigh in with
red-carpet preview programming
and news shows looking
back at the event.

“I wear two hats,” Quenzel
said. “The greater goal is to grow
the popularity of the league.
That will trickle down to the
network.”

Short-form programming is
becoming even more valuable,
Coplin said, thanks to the rise of
the Internet, smart phones and
tablets. “Technology is changing
the way fans are consuming
content,” he said. (Time is
“more fungible” on these platforms,
he added, meaning that
segments don’t have to fit precisely in a specific time frame
like long-form programs on linear networks.)

All the networks are trying to tap the reach of the Internet.

“Mobile is the biggest driver of everything now,” Quenzel
said. The new platforms create an emphasis on news
content, he added, but also provide a new outlet for material
that doesn’t fit in a 24-hour linear environment.

For instance, NFL Network’s America’s Game is now
available on Hulu, while short, standalone clips from the
series can be found on NFL.com.

“Digital and social media are the biggest changes for our
networks,” Quenzel added. “We can create a deeper, richer
experience for our fans.”

September