Costa Mesa, CA (Nov 13, 2008) - There were four news "events" this week related to the rights ownership of broadcast sports properties. First, you had what some called the "Heidi game" of NASCAR. The second was news that the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) is entertaining the thought of leaving Fox Sports for ESPN, to be broadcast on cable only. The third was Turner Sports passing on an extension of their contract with the R&A for the The Open Championship. Finally, ESPN announced today the exclusive rights to broadcast the property on cable only for the next eight years. Already, a couple of notable sports blogs, Fang's Bites and Sports Media Watch, have written very good pieces about this trend.
The 10,000 Foot Level
In looking at this trend of broadcast properties moving to cable only, particularly to ESPN, should be of concern because of the marriage of monopolies that can (and has) been occurring. In moving the properties to cable only, those who do not have cable or satellite access to cable are cut out of the loops. No longer will they be able to see their sports over the air. When that happens, how will leagues such as the NFL, which has an anti-trust exemption from Congress, spin that?
The NASCAR Heidi Race on ABC
People and media outlets have been critical of ABC Sports from cutting away from the conclusion of last Sunday's race. They were upset that the race was cut off in favor of America's Funniest Home Videos. This was not a Heidi incident, as viewers had the opportunity to switch over to the ESPN family of Networks to watch the conclusion. Well, that is viewers who had access to those networks could switch.
So for the most part, no one really lost and ABC/ESPN won across the board with this business decision. Why? Because it is the November Sweeps period, a period in which ratings are used to set advertising rates for the next 6 months or so. So if you are ABC, do you sacrifice ratings success on your best night of the week to show the conclusion of a race to a sister network?
Sports Media Watch recently reported that
The Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 drew a 3.6/7 final rating and 5.7 million viewers on ABC Sunday afternoon, down 5% and 6% respectively from a 3.8/7 and 6 million for the same race in '07. Ratings peaked at a 4.7/8 from 7:15 to 7:30 PM, the last fifteen minutes the race aired on ABC. From 7:30-7:45 PM, ABC drew a 3.4/5 for the first half of America's Funniest Home Videos -- a drop of 28%.So why move the race instead of letting it go on? The answer is not because of America's Funniest Home Videos. The answer may be because of Desperate Housewives, as shown in the Nielsen Ratings from last week:
|3||NBC SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL||NBC||17,564||11.0||18||1|
|4||DANCING WITH THE STARS||ABC||17,089||11.1||16||15|
|6||DANCING W/STARS RESULT SP(S)||S||ABC||15,848||10.2||16||28|
|7||GREY’S ANATOMY-THU 9PM||ABC||15,740||10.1||15||2|
|8||SNL PRESIDENTIAL BASH ‘08(S)||S||NBC||14,436||8.7||13||4|
Source: TV By The Numbers
Could ABC have sacrificed these numbers in favour of a low rated NASCAR race? Could they have sacrificed the family audiences for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, with its heavy cross-promotion of Disney properties? At the same time, ESPN2 picked up ratings friendly content, albeit for a brief period.
Barry Horn of the Dallas Morning News complained that;
Let's get this straight: CBS doesn't abandon NFL games to go to 60 Minutes but ABC left a NASCAR playoff race for a AFHV, a show with no redeeming social significance other than to fill an hour of air time.
This statement assumes that NASCAR offers any more redeeming social significance than other network offerings, but that is a discussion for another forum. You do not see this happen with the NFL on CBS because the numbers for those games are significantly higher than NASCAR (for the most part). Die hard viewers of 60 Minutes are perhaps more willing to wait than those on ABC. In addition, CBS does not have the ability to switch to a widely subscribed sister network on Cable. Even if CBS College Sports has as much market penetration as the ESPN networks, the ability to switch may be hampered by multiple games at the same time AND the willingness of the NFL to allow it to happen. That is a key as the NFL has a heck of a lot more clout than NASCAR, the NHL and/or the PGA Tour.
It appears that it all came down to a business decision, and the losers were the people who do not have cable. The people who could not take the time to switch the remote did not lose anything.
Coming Up in Part II
In the next part of this series, we will take a look at the impact of the just announced deal between ESPN and the R&A for The Open Championship, and the impact of moving the BCS games to cable only. This is now available at The Cablization of Television Sports Properties - Part II.