Press Coverage: TV Rights Feuds, Spring Training Baseball, PTI & The Gus Johnson Effect

With all due respect to Bruce Springsteen, when he wrote the song 57 Channels (And Nothin' On) back in the 1990s, how was he supposed to know that just over a decade and a half later, we'd be able to watch ten times that number. Perhaps with 57 channels there could be the chance that nothing is on, but with the world of television being so specialized, it's impossible for there not to be something on for virtually every person on the planet. ↵

↵ESPN proved many years ago – and in at least four incarnations since – that a 24-hour network dedicated to sports can not only survive the morass of television consumption, but thrive as well. ESPN proved to be the model that all other cable networks aspire to become – invaluable to the cable providers. ESPN has a business model where ratings matter less to their bottom line than cable subscribers. It doesn't actually matter if fewer people are watching ESPN than, say, NBC, because ESPN is still skimming the same amount off our cable bills whether you're watching college basketball on their network or the Olympics on another. Sure, the ratings matter to ESPN, and the more people watching means the more they can charge for ad rates. Perhaps as important to ESPN is simply that your TV is on and you're paying your bill, because more than $4 of that bill is going into their coffers, whether you get home and put on PTI or the Barefoot Contessa. ↵

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↵As brilliant as the ESPN strategy has been over the years, it hasn't helped consumers one bit. We've chronicled over the last few months several networks quibbling with cable providers over network rights fees with the threat of blacking out both NFL and major college bowl games. Usually, a deal is struck after much public acrimony. But the deal on Sunday in the very public feud between Cablevision and Disney on behalf of the local New York ABC affiliate wasn't officially struck until after 8:44 p.m. EST, well into the Oscar telecast. Per the New York Times: ↵

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↵⇥The Oscar statuette became a pawn in a public brawl between the Walt Disney Company and Cablevision on Sunday, a dispute that prevented more than three million viewers from watching the beginning of the Academy Awards show until a tentative agreement restored the signal 14 minutes into the telecast. ↵⇥

↵⇥The accord ended a high-stakes game of brinkmanship between the two companies that was the latest in a string of recent feuds between media giants over transmission fees. ↵⇥

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↵⇥Cable providers have long paid substantial fees to carry cable-only channels like ESPN and TNT, but have paid nothing to carry traditional broadcast channels — a situation that the cash-starved broadcast networks have wanted to change. The decline of the TV advertising market has “accelerated that push,” Derek Baine, a cable industry analyst for SNL Kagan, said Sunday. ↵⇥

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↵It really doesn't make any sense that ESPN and TNT can charge so much for carriage fees by using the leverage that subscribers would leave that provider if they didn't pony up the cash to carry their networks, especially considering the likes of ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX have traditionally gotten nothing when their content is viewed on an average per-night basis by more than ten times what the cable networks can draw. With no more rabbit ears and everything on digital bands, it doesn’t make any sense why the channels that habitually receive no per-subscriber fees to continue to do so when they're the ones keeping the cable company's lights on. Per the report in the NYT, the local NBC affiliate was looking for $1 per subscriber a month, though insider reports indicated they'd be happy with 60 cents per subscriber. When negotiations stalled, ABC pulled the plug on one of the biggest days of the television calendar. ↵
↵⇥It was a high-stakes move for Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive: he was potentially taking his No. 1 affiliate in the country out of more than three million homes on ABC’s highest-rated day of the year. (Only championship football is more popular than the Academy Awards among American TV viewers.) ↵⇥

↵⇥Mr. Iger was under pressure to stand his ground. If he had failed to win concessions from Cablevision, it would have been virtually impossible to push for so-called retransmission payments when ABC contracts come due with bigger distributors. In that context, his decision to cut off Cablevision may have represented a willingness to take a short-term loss in return for a longer-term gain. ↵⇥

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↵⇥The looming fight, in fact, was foreshadowed on Saturday when Time Warner Cable, the nation’s second largest cable provider, told its customers that for them, ABC was “not at risk... yet.” ↵⇥

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↵After ABC and Cablevision worked out a deal late Sunday evening, the companies were applauded by local politicians, who clearly saw this as a chance for some fence-mending face time. The story reports that some are suggesting a review of federal rules regarding retransmission. ↵

↵Of course, we all know that the a la carte system would work, and while it may create many fights between those of us who demand every ESPN network and our significant others who feel it's not worth $10/month just to see old episodes of American Gladiators, it might be the only thing that will save us from a $600 cable bill. I'd happily go back to 57 channels…even if, occasionally, nothing is on. ↵

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↵The Best Things About Spring: MLB Network ↵
↵I may not always agree with him, but seeing Harold Reynolds on TV makes me smile. In fact, it's not just Reynolds that has me smiling when I turn on the MLB Network coverage. At the start of its second season, the network has proven to be the go-to place for baseball. The network provides a good balance of reporting with commentary and showcases those who cover the game – Tom Verducci, Ken Rosenthal, Jon Heyman, Peter Gammons – as much as the cast of characters who played the game. ↵

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↵But nothing has proven more valuable to the baseball fan than what MLB Network is giving us every day this spring: out-of-market games. Want to catch the Phillies and Yankees? You can do that at 1 p.m. ET. Looking to check out the crop of talent in Seattle? Watch them play Prince Fielder and the Brewers at 7 p.m. Tuesday's schedule has three games on the slate. It's what baseball fans want…more baseball. Much like the MLB Extra Innings package, the network takes the feed directly from the local telecasts, including the local commentators and bumpers in and out of innings with local sponsors or team specific promotions. It's like a slice of Americana, one Grapefruit or Cactus League game at a time. ↵

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↵The Gus Johnson Effect ↵
↵Watching West Virginia beat Villanova in overtime this weekend made you realize just how dangerous the Big East should be in the NCAA tournament, and just how thankful you were that CBS had the foresight to staff Gus Johnson for the game in Philly. Now, I've taken my shots at Johnson in the past – mainly stemming from the fact that I feel "wow!" is not great play-by-play – but there is nobody in the business who can come close to the unbridled enthusiasm that Johnson provides on a college basketball telecast. In short, Johnson + close game = awesome. ↵

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↵But last year, Johnson didn't get too many close games in the NCAA tournament. In fact, In the first weekend, Johnson called six games and only one was decided by five points or less. Sure, he had Dayton's eight-point upset over West Virginia, and undoubtedly some great plays and big shots, but there was no buzzer-beater that had the whole planet reliving Johnson's call. Johnson got a clunker between top-seeded Louisville and 12-seed Arizona in the Sweet 16, yet did get the chance to call Michigan State's come-from-behind win over Kansas, that included a game-winning shot in the last minute of play. Johnson's Elite Eight game proved to be the worst of the four. Nine games with just two that were close is not a high enough percentage leading into the NCAA tournament this year. ↵

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↵Did CBS change something up this year, or are they getting luckier with their Gus Johnson calls. Or, and there's no real way to verify this, has Johnson's presence created better games? Do players see Johnson and just assume the game is going to close at the end? Is Johnson a college basketball self-fulfilling prophecy? ↵

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↵In seven games for CBS, Johnson has had just two decided by 10 points or more, with the other five games being decided by a total of 10 points. And this, of course, doesn't include his games for the Big Ten Network, which have included some pretty close contests as well. ↵

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↵It's obvious that CBS will send Jim Nantz to the top location for TV ratings – likely including Duke – and funnel down their coverage from there. Hopefully they have a formula to determine which region will have the closest games and send Johnson to those arenas. Those decisions didn't pan out in last year's tournament, but it has worked so far this year. ↵

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↵Did PTI Miss Tony Kornheiser? ↵
↵With Tony Kornheiser finished his two-week "grounded with no TV" punishment by ESPN, the obvious question was if the show would struggle without him. According to TV by the Numbers, Kornheiser's absence didn't have that big a drop off in viewers through the first week of his suspension: ↵

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↵⇥With a two week run of Le Batard paired with Michael Wilbon instead of Kornheiser, I thought I’d take a look at the numbers. At least in his first week filling in for Mr. Tony, there was no noticeable impact to the overall viewer averages. PTI’s numbers fluctuate week to week a bit anyway, but one thing that seems to always be the case is that Monday’s show is the most-viewed. ↵⇥

↵⇥In TK’s last week, PTI averaged 1.203 million viewers per episode, in Le Batard’s first week PTI averaged 1.174 million. That’s down an average of 29K viewers, but well within the range of normal week-to-week fluctuations. ↵⇥

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↵If you break down each day, it's interesting that Le Batard's first episode filling in for Kornheiser was the highest-rated of the two week span, possibly driving more traffic to see if they discussed Tony's suspension. That said, the show's ratings with Le Batard actually beat the previous week's ratings on both Tuesday and Wednesday, which is somewhat surprising considering Wednesday, February 17, featured Five Good Minutes with Kobe Bryant. It will be very interesting to see what the ratings for Le Batard's second week were, as well as what the ratings are for Kornheiser's first show back. Yet for the first week, as much as they joke about viewers turning the channel as soon as they hear Le Batard's "BAM," he didn't lose the audience at all through the first week.
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↵Welcome to Twitter, EA!
↵Erin Andrews has finally bit the social-media bullet and joined Twitter. Clearly her appearance on Dancing with the Stars has her looking for some new followers as her first tweet was a photo of a bruise she got while practicing her steps. Oh, and her Twitter icon is a stock DWTS photo. It will be worth following to see how interactive she is with fans and other media – so far her tweets have been very engaging – and if she keeps it up after her dancing run ends. For now, follow her here.↵

This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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