The NBC Sports Network just had a really good two weeks. Four of the network's top 10 audiences in history (as NBCSN, VERSUS or OLN) came from the 2012 Olympic Games, including 4.3 million viewers -- a network record -- watching the gold-medal match of the women's soccer tournament.
Throughout the fortnight, NBCSN (and all corporate partner networks) ran ads promoting the network's coverage of multiple sporting events and various new and returning shows.
Anybody notice hockey was a little bit buried there? The network, of course, included the sport in its promos, and the NHL had a promotional spot of its own. However, the NHL spot ran somewhat infrequently, and in the general network promos the sport was a little bit buried after the channel's other properties. The promos for hockey said "returning this fall" instead of "returning in October."
It all makes you wonder what the NBC Sports Network is going to do without hockey for a little while, if that turns out to be the result of all the current labor wrangling. The network leaned quite heavily on hockey last season. More than 140 nights of the calendar year on that channel are filled with pucks. That's ... kind of a lot to replace. How will the NBC Sports Network do it? Here's a few examples.
It's probably the network's biggest property other than hockey, though it has been diminished a bit in recent years. Gone are low-level Big 12 and mid-level Pac-12 games. In their place is the Colonial Athletic Association; not a bad get for its basketball teams (we'll get to that later) but only a solid Division II in football. NBCSN also has the rights to the Mountain West, which means they get to suck the life out of Boise State's final year as a mid-major (NBCSN will air five Boise State games this season) along with a couple of other decent teams. The Ivy League also plays its games on the network.
Unless the league can pony up for the Big East this year (and some believe that is a real possibility), their college football programming will remain a bit second-rate.
While the network continues to watch its version of Don Quixote's windmill (the Thursday-night NFL package) stay in-house with the league, it'll keep doubling down on football programming as a supplement to NBC's Sunday Night Football. Newcomer Hines Ward will be a part of Mike Florio's weekly Pro Football Talk television arm, and the channel will eventually have its own Sunday morning pre-game show in 2014. NFL Turning Point, produced by NFL Films, remains an unnoticed gem in midweek. Until games show up on the network, however, things will still seem a bit second-rate.
Major League Soccer
Fairly straightforward here: MLS will carry on with game programming through November, with a ton of regular-season games remaining, and rights to at least three playoff games. NBC's MLS coverage has been great, and viewers got a look at that seeing Arlo White and Kyle Martino call soccer in London.
One would imagine that NCAA hockey might take the place of the pros while the league is gone, which might get the sport (which usually doesn't kick up the TV coverage a notch until January) some of its earliest exposure ever. It stands to reason that the network's hockey broadcasters (Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, Dave Strader, Brian Engblom, Mike Milbury, etc.) might be assigned to these games, and perhaps use them as a chance to talk about the lockout and various hockey headlines. Regardless, NBC Sports Network will likely keep its Friday-night college game even if there is no lockout, and all of Notre Dame's home games will be on NBCSN in 2013-14.
Canadian Football League
Laugh all you want, but the CFL has a cult audience in America, and NBC Sports Network is the only place on the dial to see the games. The network will air games -- mostly on Fridays -- leading up to the Grey Cup in November.
NBC Sports Network has quickly built itself a nice little reputation of sports film making. It's no 30 for 30, but NBCSN has produced decent films about the Summit Series and Jack Nicklaus. On a more macro basis, the network's 36 series is solid in IndyCar, MLS, boxing and the NHL. It's added a series that acts as a television component to Sports Illustrated. NBCSN also debuts a new documentary series called Caught Looking, which is produced by Major League Baseball and goes inside one series each week. That could be a bit of a game changer, because it gives the network an in with MLB, a league that just coincidentally is negotiating new television rights at the moment.
Should the lockout go really long, the network has a better-than-expected slate of college basketball. It always under-uses the Mountain West, but has a chance to have some success with the aforementioned CAA, which contains decent-profile teams like George Mason and Drexel. But that's only if things get super bad.
On a daily basis, NBCSN will have two "highlight" shows. One is the relaunched, traditional/talking heads hour of NBC Sports Talk, while the other is more interesting and just debuted a few hours ago. The Lights, airing from 7-9 a.m. ET every day, takes a "newsradio" format to sports -- it gets everything done and across in 20-minute intervals. There is no on-camera host, just a voiceover person narrating highlights. I'm intrigued to see if it provides a real no-frills alternative to SportsCenter.
I really do hope that all of this becomes supplemental programming to the NHL, and not necessary replacements. The network, and NBC in general, should try to use its $2 billion worth of influence on the league to try and push toward quicker settlement. NBC will be fine without the NHL, but its sports network will lose hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours of valuable programming, which would be detrimental after such a solid summer.