As we approach the launch of Fox Sports 1, we bring you the second in a series of interviews conducted with sports network executives. In Part 1, Matt Yoder spoke with NBC's Jon Miller on the State of NBC Sports Network. In Part 2, Awful Announcing spoke with CBS Sports President David Berson. Mr. Berson has named President of CBS Sports in June after being Executive Vice Presdent of CBS Sports and President of CBS Sports Network. Before joining CBS in 2011, Berson spent 16 years at ESPN in various capacities.
During his CBS tenure, Berson has overseen the rebranding of CBS Sports Network from CBS College Sports and converting the network to closely fit CBS Sports' assets. In addition, Berson has increased its distribution and increased the hours of studio programming to include personality-driven shows (ROME, Lead Off with Doug Gottlieb and Allie LaForce and the Tim Brando Show) and shoulder programming surrounding CBS Sports events including the Super Bowl, US Open and PGA Championship.
While CBS has maintained most of its current properties, the NFL, SEC football, NCAA Tournament, The Masters, PGA Championship, and the PGA Tour, CBS Sports Network remains on sports tiers, airs niche sports like Arena Football, Professional Bull Riding and MLL Lacrosse, and is seen in less than 50 million homes.
In this interview, Berson discussed the perception of CBS sitting on the sidelines while ESPN, Fox and NBC battle it out for major sports properties, the future of CBS Sports Network and the overall State of CBS Sports.
Ken Fang: This is a busy week in sports television as you're well aware. Let's start by getting a State of CBS Sports from you.
David Berson: Sure. Let's begin with the PGA Championship which just concluded. Jason Dufner had a very impressive victory winning by a couple of strokes. We're very pleased with our coverage. Ratings were up very significantly over last year. It was very exciting. We didn't have a Tiger or Phil down the stretch, but nonetheless, there was tremendous drama, some tremendous golf. The course was outstanding and we were very pleased with it. Again, ratings were up quite significantly.
So a lot of the attention now focuses on the NFL season. The begining of the season starts in early September and we're gearing up for that.
Obviously, the fall brings the SEC as well. We have the top game each week as well as the SEC Championship.
From there, it's the launch of the PGA Tour season once again and the college basketball season, the NCAA Tournament, The Masters, and then the whole cycle once again. I can't forget about the US Open starting in a couple of weeks which is the next event on the horizon.
The broadcast side of CBS Sports is obviously a tremendous portfolio of rights that we have, something we're incredibly proud of and most of these events are locked up well into the next decade.
On the cable side, we've been very pleased with our progress this year. Two years ago, we changed the name of the network to CBS Sports Network from CBS College Sports. Since then our distribution has increased by 20-25%. We've doubled the live hours, run hundreds of live events, personalities like Jim Rome and Doug Gottlieb, and programming from all the major CBS events from the Super Bowl to The Masters to the Final Four, you name it.
Overall, the CBS Sports brand has been evolving a lot. For generations, It's been about big events on weekend afternoons and we're so fortunate that that will continue for many years to come based on the rights we have and we're even adding to them a 24 hour cable network, a very robust website, a new radio network that launched this past year and of course, Showtime Sports.
KF: If Fox Sports and Fox Sports 1 are describing themselves as "fun," what in one word would you use to describe CBS Sports and CBS Sports Network?
DB: I'll tell you it's been no different than what we've been preaching day-to-day out here. We pride ourselves on having fun. If you watch our "Inside College Basketball" show and our college football studio shows on CBS Sports Network, there's no doubt that you sense tons of fun. A lot of that comes from the relationships from the folks on air. So there's no doubt fun is a component of something we do and frankly have been doing for quite some time.
But when you think of CBS Sports, you think of big events, recognizable and trusted names from folks like Jim Nantz and of Phil Simms, tradition and quality. You pair those all together and obviously I'm not giving you one word you're looking for, but it's about tradition, high quality, entertainment and trusted voices. That's what I think CBS Sports brings to you.
KF: What is CBS' reaction to what Fox has been doing?
DB: From our perspective, welcome to the world of 24/7 sports. I give them credit. They're coming quite aggressively now and they have a nice portfolio of rights. It's not so easy going from random events to 24/7 and they're in the throes of that right now, piecing it together and good luck to them.
What they're doing, what we're doing, what ESPN's doing, what NBC and Turner and on and on .,. frankly, I think it's all good for fans, and each entity has a slightly different view of things and approach and everyone's looking to push to innovate. And the more we all push and the more we all innovate, ultimately it just becomes a better experience for the fans. It's more hours of more events and with new enhancements and ultimately, the fans win. So we're excited.
Welcome to this new world and let's get it on!
KF: The perception of CBS is that it's been sitting quietly on the sidelines while Fox, NBC and ESPN have been fighting it out. But as you mentioned, CBS has been quietly retaining its portfolio on the broadcast side except for the US Open which went to ESPN, while on the cable side, there's a lot of niche events. What is your reaction to that?
DB: It's funny. There's no doubt there's been a lot of talk over the last several months, a lot coming from the Fox rollout of some of the flashy stuff that other folks, specifcally Fox is doing, and that's a slightly different approach than we take. To each his own. They have their style, we have ours. We go on about our stuff pretty quietly and as you mentioned, all the rights we have from SEC, NFL, PGA Tour, NCAA Tournament and on and on, we have well into the next decade. We've done that and locked those in, while other folks are renewing a lot of stuff and getting a lot of headlines, but all of our major properties are locked in for many, many years. So we've accomplished a lot of the stuff on our side that is being done now by the other entities. So we feel really good about the short and long term prospects of our product on the broadcast side.
On the cable side, we haven't gone and spent a billion dollars on any one property or anything like that, but we are making significant strides to grow the network. We know it's not an overnight fix. We have a little different approach than some of the other guys and we're doing it methodically and strategically for certain properties that add a lot more live events with a lot more personality on the air and gaining a lot more distribution and it works well for our strategy and our business model.
One thing we do at CBS Sports is that we make sure that the product we have and the business that we have is profitable and good for the company. Our approach is slightly different than some of the other guys and again, to each his own. We feel very good about where we stand on both the broadcast and the cable side moving forward.
KF: What about the future of CBS Sports? You mentioned the long-term commitments to the current portfolio, but there are some sports properties that will be up for bid in the coming years such as MLS, the NBA and the Big Ten. What are CBS' plans those properties?
DB: We look at every property as it comes along just like every network does. You look at it. You see how it makes sense within your schedule, the financial picture both competitively and strategically. Every network will look at every property and we'll find the right spots, but we'll choose to pursue aggressively.
On the broadcast side based on that portfolio, we feel really good. We have a solid schedule year-round. The CBS Television Network has won 11 of the last 12 entertainment seasons. It's far and away the most viewed network in the country. The bar is really high on the CBS Television Network. We're not going to add product just to add product. We're have to add product that's really going to grow the network from an economic and viewership standpoint. We're in a really good spot on the broadcast side.
On the cable side, we're going to continue to look and find properties that make sense for us, but again, we're not going to spend foolishly. We want it to make smart business sense for our company and we picked our spots to date and we feel good about it and we'll continue to be smart and strategic and selective in wherever we invest.
KF: One final question, do you think the CBS/Time Warner dispute will be resolved in time for the NFL season?
DB: One thing I've learned early on is not to guess timelines or ratings or anything like that. We all want the same result. We want to have a deal that works for both parties and done as soon as possible.
I don't associate the word fun with anything CBS does - I think stodgy, old and boring. Their production and graphics are amateur compared to the other networks, and I think their reliance on Jim Nantz for everything hurts them far more than it helps. Nantz just has this boring, old-guy approach to everything he does, making me more likely to fall asleep than be riveted.
And CBS Sports Network is just the worst - there's literally nothing on there worth watching at all. I don't want to watch talking head shows, and that's all they ever seem to have, unless you're into watching the Patriot League game of the week, a half-step above your local high school.
A major issue with CBS Sports Network was self-inflicted by CBS: The NCAA tournament deal with Turner threw CBSSN under the bus, since TBS, TNT and Tru TV have all the games not on CBS broadcast. CBS should have insisted on substituting CBSSN for Tru TV.
So he basically is admitting that the cable network is just sitting back. It's a completely useless channel for now. Is there a plan to make it relevant? I do like that their NFL coverage can seem more professional than FOX, that can also mean boring. And Jim Nantz and Phil Simms are definitely not pluses in my book.
I honestly don't watch anything on CBS or CBS Sports. The only sport that they have rights to that I watch is the NFL but they have AFC rights and my team is a NFC team so I maybe watch one or two games a year on CBS. I'll catch a couple of minutes of the basketball tournament but I'm not a basketball guy at all. Of the sports I'm into Fox has them MLB, NFC football, and UFC. If CBS Sports network wants to be taken seriously, they should probably go after the NBA hard because without one of the big 3 (NFL, MLB, NBA) on your channel it's hard to really make an impact.
With CBS current portfolio, then I hope they keep the rights to the NFL, NCAA Basketball, and golf. They do a good job with their presentations and don't try to be "extreme, loud, and funny" like Fox tries to be. The NFL coverage between Fox and CBS is like night and day. Finally I love CBS's coverage of the PGA Tour and the Masters.