With this week representing a watershed time in the sports media, AA is sitting down with executives from various cable sports networks for an open forum on their progress and standing in the sports world. Today I spoke with Jon Miller, President of Programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN. Miller has been a driving force in the many rights deals NBC has struck with Formula 1, the English Premier League, and NASCAR among others and the remaking of Versus into NBCSN.
When NBC Sports Network launched on January 2, 2012 many observers thought it would become an immediate challenger to ESPN's long held grip as the #1 sports network in the land. Instead of taking on Bristol directly though, NBCSN has looked to acquire sports rights with smaller, passionate fanbases and own the market for the Olympics, hockey, motorsports, and now the EPL.
In spite of adding popular personalities like Dan Patrick and Michelle Beadle though, NBCSN has found it difficult to draw viewers to the network's studio programming. NBCSN has seen its lineup shuffled with shows like NBC Sports Talk being jettisoned in favor of the new SportsDash with Yahoo Sports and The Crossover being retooled. In many ways, NBCSN is still a work in progress although in the world of 24/7 sports it seems like it's been around forever.
I discussed with Jon Miller what areas he's been pleased with in the 19 months NBCSN has been on the air and what areas still needed work, why the EPL is so integral to NBCSN's future, whether he'll make a serious push for the NBA, what will ultimately make NBCSN a success, and what one word he would use to describe NBC Sports. And no, it isn't "fun."
Matt Yoder: Since NBC Sports Network launched almost 2 years ago what's one area you're happy with in the network's early stages and one area you'd like to grow further?
Jon Miller: I'm really excited about a lot of the programming acquisitions and development we've made. The way we've grown the NHL and the recent acquisitions of the Premier League which launches this weekend and NASCAR which launches in 2015. We're excited about the way the network looks, the quality of production, the way the network has been repositioned, rebranded, as well as adding Formula One we think we've made some real strong progress there.
As far as one area to improve, clearly the original programming area is a challenge that we continue to work on. We've had some successes with shows like NFL Turning Point. We recently did a show called Shark Hunters that was very well received. But we continue to work hard to develop that original studio programming that we know is very important to the success of a 24/7 cable network.
MY: What are you looking to do to draw more viewers to those studio programs so that NBCSN becomes a destination for sports fans?
JM: We're constantly looking at new opportunities. We're launching a new program called SportsDash powered by Yahoo on Monday which will be hosted by Carolyn Manno and Dave Briggs which we're very excited about because we think it'll be different than your regular studio show in that we're using a lot of analytics Yahoo brings to the table on the topics and interests that are trending.
Clearly we're going to surround our rights-driven programming with strong original programming. For example, the Premier League will have multiple games on Saturday and Match of the Day Saturday night, Sunday night will have Match of the Day II. We've built strong original programming around the NHL with our NHL Live shows and the NHL studio programming we have. Then of course Pro Football Talk, which for the NFL fan is a great destination. We think we're on the right track there.
MY: Is there a sustained strategy in acquiring sports like the EPL, F1, NASCAR, or the NHL that may have smaller, more passionate fanbases that may not be served right now by other networks?
JM: Those sports do have passionate fanbases that are growing and continuing to get stronger. One of the unique things about those properties is that they're exclusive to the NBC platform. While we share NASCAR with Fox when it's our portion of the season from July-November we're the place to come for NASCAR. We're the place to come for the Premier League. We're the place to come for all NHL content. The same thing with the Olympics and Formula 1. When you have the opportunity to own those sports exclusively and vertically integrate them through your different platforms (cable, network digital) we think that's where we can really maximize value.
MY: As a soccer fan, when NBC's EPL plans came out it was stunning to see the amount of hours committed to the league, not just in live games but studio programming. Why invest so much in the EPL as integral to NBCSN's future?
JM: That was part of our promise and mission to the Premier League when we made our presentation. We were going to put the Premier League on a level they had not seen in this country. ESPN and Fox had done a great job with the EPL until this past year but we thought we were uniquely positioned to bring a lot more to the table when we had the morning windows as well as a broadcast network for Saturday afternoon and Championship Sunday where all 10 games will be on linear networks on May 11th.
We had opportunities to do really unique things with shoulder programming whether it be Match of the Day or GoalZone or Manchester Mondays. Our feeling was to be the network of the Premier League. The other thing that's unique is there are 380 games and if you're a Premier League fan you're going to be able to watch all those games at no additional charge whether it be Premier League Extra Time or on your laptop, iPhone, or tablet through NBC Live Extra. You're going to be able to see every game live in its entirety in HD at no additional charge. That's never been done before with a major professional sport in this country.
MY: This is a big week in the industry obviously, with so much competition and sports in the 24/7 marketplace right now how would you best describe NBCSN's status in that marketplace at the moment?
JM: I would equate us to a very hungry, well funded startup that has made some real progress in 2 years and continues to grow. We're still very early on in our growth curve and have made a lot of changes from what Versus was. We're very excited about what lies ahead of us, we've made great strides. We have a leading production group led by Sam Flood and his team, Pierre Moossa on soccer is going to be tremendous, what Tommy Roy does with golf, Fred Gaudelli with the NFL - we're blessed to have a great production team and that comes through loud and clear in all of our broadcasts.
MY: Will we see more top events move from broadcast to cable to further bolster NBCSN? Perhaps more prime Olympic programming or Notre Dame football?
JM: We have the opportunity in our new long term deal to move some Notre Dame games over to NBC Sports Network. There are no plans to do it for 2013 but we evaluate each season with our partners in South Bend and we'll take a look. There's an enormous amount of Olympic programming live on NBC Sports Network as you saw from London and we'll do something similar from Sochi. Our new NASCAR deal has 20 Sprint Cup races of which a majority of those are on NBCSN, and the same thing with the Nationwide series. With the Premier League we have the balance on NBC Sports Network so we're very cognizant of that. I think we've worked really well together using both assets (broadcast and cable) and maximizing both assets.
MY: You mentioned the words "well funded" and of course NBC just spent $4 billion dollars on NASCAR. What are your ambitions to acquire other live sports rights knowing there's not too much out there over the next decade in terms of premier packages. Will you take a serious look at pursuing the NBA or the Big Ten for example?
JM: The safest way to answer that is we always look at opportunities when they become available. We have a long, rich history with the NBA and if the opportunity became available we'd certainly have conversations with them. There are other properties that will come out in the college world too.
We've done 16 major acquisitions since the merger happened in 2011 so we've been very inquisitive, we have a company that understands the value of sports and quality sports television and we will continue to be aggressive and make good, smart deals when the opportunities are there.
MY: What would constitute NBCSN becoming a success in 5 years time? Increased ratings, awareness, or distribution? More live sports rights? What would make you say, "yes, this network has made it"?
JM: I think it's a combination of all those things, Matt. We want to be part of the sports fan's everyday conversation. I know we're a part of the NHL fan's everyday conversation. I know we'll be the default channel for soccer fans starting Saturday. In motorsports we're going to be the only network with NASCAR, F1 and IndyCar, and we're going to be around for a long time in that business.
We want fans to look at NBC and NBCSN as a place they can go to get quality programming that's well produced that treats the sport and the fan with great respect and a place people want to go to consume their sports.
MY: If you could summarize NBCSN and NBC Sports' philosophy in one word what would it be? Fun, perhaps?
JM: No it would not be fun. (Laughs) We're good storytellers but I think more than that we want to be known as an authentic sports brand. People who watch us whether it be golf, football, hockey, soccer, or you name it they will say "NBC is an authentic sports brand and does an unbelievable job in producing and delivering a product." That's part of our legacy and that will never change.
You can all talk stats and networks and ball sports as much as you want but there is no longer a central hub for the world's second most viewed sport.
Motorsports in this country is but a "by the way" on television programming. Since the demise of SPEED there is no easy way to find any motorsports. It is spread all over the dial.
Wake up you corporate jocks. The contingent of motorsport fans out here is larger than you know and we are tired of self centered management and programmers stuffing overzealous ball sport analysis programs and second rate sports down our throat while the rest of the world continues to endorse motorsports at the level of respect it deserves.
Formula 1 is viewed through three episodes every other week in this country. You'd think Premier League Soccer could be preempted to allow F1 qualification to be shown LIVE.
Wake up !!
An excellent interview with Mr. Miller. If I was "king for a day" I would make an insane bid for the Big Ten including an unfreindly takeover of the FOX part of the Big Ten Network ownership. No ESPN, CBS, or anyone else, in my world, NBC/Universal would be the home of the Big Ten. Much like how the EPL is.
They need some form of college sports. A bad Notre Dame season and the smaller CAA and Ivy League would prove to be in hindrance. I also hope they could pick up some basketball from the Missouri Valley and one of the conferences out west. The Big Ten market wise would be a better bet. With Rutgers just on the fringe, you have New York. Plus the markets of Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Detroit, the state of Ohio, St. Louis, Minneapolis-St.Paul, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and maybe Kansas City. Plus all the transplanted midwesterners in Florida, Arizona, and California. Not too many SEC folks out west. Besides Atlanta, Tampa, and Miami, the markets are smaller in the southeast. Plus Missouri will miss out thus guaranteeing KC and St.L. But a little of those areas is better than nothing.
I wish I could spend 15 minutes with Mr. Miller. But I am sure others would too. Forget fantasy players and teams, this gets me going more than anything. One area that is painful is the mornings. Somehow NBC needs to take their trusted "Today Show" brand and put a more sports side to it. "Today" only does sports if it involves a tragedy, scandal, or a ten second VO on a championship followed by comments from anchors not too sports inclind (at least when the mic is on). I will even dare say they need a guy version of "Kathie Lee and Hoda". Plus they might want to incorporate a few stars from other areas to NBCSN in some way. Jimmy Fallon comes to mind first. Maybe some SNL tie in?
NBA, I would try but not bend over backwards. Maybe a regular season package and some playoffs. Rotate the All-Star game with TNT and ESPN?
I was shocked to find out they lost the U.S. Open golf to FOX (scary thought). Wish I could present my thoughts to someone at NBC.....
Sad all the deals go into the 20's. I miss going over all the rights bidding every few years. I will be in my 60's when it happens again. I would love to run NBC Sports for a day...
NBC Sports Network has no choice but to go after niche programming. The honestly don't have the cash to bid with the big boys. MLB's contract bidding this past year showed that. NBC had to bow out because they couldn't hang with ESPN and the combined bid of Fox/TBS. The same will happen with the NBA rights when they go up next year. Fox Sports 1 will be all over them because right now they don't have a winter sport to broadcast. What will be interesting is if the NBA stays with Turner, which they have been with forever and who hosts the studio segments at their Turner studios in Atlanta, or will they stay with ESPN and move the Turner games over to Fox Sports 1. Either way NBC sports is a non player. And all of the big time contracts will be tied up after the NBA signs their new one. They probably dropped the ball on not getting at least a game of the week deal with MLB.
Bring over some Aussie Rules Football! I'm not spending the money on the Fox Sports Soccer Plus network when I don't even like soccer, just to get 1-2 games a week.
I suspect the reason NBCSN didn't go for baseball is Comcast is already in the baseball business with regional sports networks and its share of MLB network. And they don't want to induce ESPN or Fox Sports 1 to overpay because that comes out of Comcast's own carriage fees. NBCSN serves two related purposes: cover sports that ESPN and Fox don't and by so doing, constrain their annual fee increases by making them less essential. the fact NBCSN serves niche markets could also be attractive to certain advertisers but I've also sensed it's a lot of local, not national commercial buys yet.
I'm as big an NHL fan as they come. I watch games both locally televised in addition to watching NBC, NBCSN and Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts. However, I realize that niche sports like the NHL, EPL, F1 and others won't grow the network. They won't grow it's subscriber base, the fees they can charge to proivers, it's revenue, it's brand salience, really much of anything.
At some point, even if it's the NBC mother-ship, it seems to me that the NBC Sports Group is going to have to pony up for an MLB, NBA, Thursday Night NFL or BIG10 TV deal if it ever wants growing subscriber fees and ratings. Without one of those, it seems like a niche sports network stuck in neutral. If the executives are happy with that and that's all they aspire to be, then terrific. If not, it seems there is a lot more to acquire in terms of live sporting events.
What I was surprised about was Comcast (NBC's parent company) was not more aggressive in trying to get Major League Baseball last year for both NBC and NBCSN. I wonder how much the Nationals' shutdown of Stephen Strasburg late last season played into Comcast backing out of any serious bids for MLB, especially since in my view the Strasburg shutdown turned off many casual fans and in turn caused the lowest-rated World Series ever. I suspect the Strasburg shutdown was why we are not seeing MLB on NBC and NBCSN now.
@ScottBravesFan Highly disagree that they don't have the cash to compete, but rather saw MLB as the over-valued property that it is. Ratings for national MLB games are abysmal, below those of even soccer. Is it really worth it to overpay for seven months of crap ratings for one month of mediocre playoff ratings? I don't think it is.
As far as NBA is concerned, NBC doesn't need them - they've got plenty of inventory with the NHL. NBC is perhaps the network best suited for growth, as illustrated by its ever-growing ratings for hockey.
I'm not entirely convinced FS1 is quite so lacking in winter sports. They have deals with four college conferences for basketball -- Big East, Big 12, Pac-12, C*USA. They have NASCAR, which starts in earnest in February. They can always arrange UFC bouts, which are year-round. They can fill slow nights in March with soccer, if necessary. The gap between the end of regular season college hoops and the start of MLB season isn't so big.
Of course, given Fox's history, they probably WILL throw billions at the NBA to try and get it, but if the network's stated goal is to be profitable by 2016, Fox seems much more likely to pursue, say, the Big Ten, since Fox already owns half of BTN, and MLS, which will only be $40M/year at most and serve as an ad platform for the post-2014 FIFA events they plan to air.
Or they could start showing curling. That might be fun.
@MikeMcDermott I wouldn't say they're stuck in neutral - NHL ratings are on the upswing, the EPL is poised for a huge ratings boon for them, and their ratings for F1 are going up as well - Monaco was up 241% over last year. Add in their new acquisition of NASCAR, and they're growing steadily.
@WaltGekko Stephen Strasburg had nothing to do with it. If you're NBC Sports Network you don't care about the World Series, you care about having MLB games on your lineup for 6 months during the spring and summer. That's where the money is. They quite simply couldn't afford the rights for MLB. They were in on the bidding and had to drop out because ESPN came in and destroyed everyone with their bid and then Fox sports and Turner Sports teamed up with their bid. NBC sports should have been aggressive in getting TBS's games and maybe a couple of playoff games but they didn't have the money. They won't have the money either for the NBA next year.
@WaltGekko NBC decision not to pursue MLB had nothing to do with Strasburg and everything to do with money. NBCSN only brings in $290 million a year in subscriber fees right now. $200 million a year goes to the NHL, and $83.3 million a year will go to the Premier League. That means advertising has to pay for just about everything else, and NBCSN doesn't exactly have the kind of ratings that lure in the big ad bucks ESPN makes. Advertising on NBC's broadcast network will end up paying for most of the NASCAR deal.
That lack of subscriber fees is one reason why NBC won't pursue the NBA anytime soon. NBCSN can't pay for it, and even if it could, it's made such a huge commitment to the NHL that the network won't have the airtime to cover both -- not unless they convert another NBCU-owned channel into NBCSN2, which might actually be worth it. Does anyone actually watch Chiller, Cloo, or Universal HD?
I don't think it had anything to do with Strasburg. I agree with you in that I was also surprised they did not try to get MLB. But, in hindsight, it was apparent they wanted NASCAR all along. If they did get MLB they would have problems scheduling games in April and May during the NHL playoffs. NASCAR gave them a sport that works perfectly around their NHL schedule.
Disagree with you, MLB's national ratings on Sunday night's on ESPN are actually really good, especially when they get a popular team. ESPN's ombudsman did a great piece on it last year. Yankees- Red Sox games will get over a 5 ratings share, that is really good. Braves, Dodgers, Cardinals also have high ratings. As for mediocre playoff ratings, they had 25 million people watch the 2011 World Series. Last year's world series was crap and still got Fox ratings of over 10 million people for 4 nights. What do you think the ratings will be like this year when it's the Red Sox vs. Braves or Red Sox vs. Dodgers? The ratings will be huge because MLB, like every other sports not named the NFL only gets high ratings when their popular teams, or in the NBA's case, popular players are involved. Do you remember the ratings for the Spurs and Pistons NBA finals? Also What soccer games are getting higher ratings than MLB games? Maybe when Mexico and the US plays. Soccer ratings are garbage in this country unless they can get the Latino fans to watch and then that is usually on one of the Spanish speaking channels. But if MLB's ratings were the albatross that you are making it out to be, do you honestly think ESPN would have doubled their rates for MLB games next season? I mean we all saw when darts and poker was outdrawing the NHL what happen, ESPN passed on their rights. If their ratings were garbage and ESPN wasn't making money off of them and still wanted to keep them they could have paid them less for their rights, their bid was a lot higher than what Fox/TBS teamed up to get their games that they got. No, ESPN wanted Sunday night baseball because it's exclusive and they don't have to share that broadcast with any other regional network.
@ScottBravesFan @WaltGekko Again, Scott, you're completely wrong. The playoffs of any sport are where you make your money - NFL aside, the regular season is just schedule filler. Don't believe me? What are the ratings for March Madness compared to the college hoops regular season? Why are ratings for the World Series so significantly higher than they are during the regular season, even though they're falling like a rock?
Again, it wasn't a lack of money that caused NBC to drop out of the running for MLB - it was not wanting to overpay for a property that is losing value annually. Again, facts can be such annoying little things...
@whatupay4sports @WaltGekko NBC won't pursue the NBA because they don't need them. There's more than enough inventory with the NHL which, despite the league's best efforts to sabotage themselves, continues to grow. I think NBC has shown the correct amount of controlled growth instead of creating channels first and then scrambling for programming. So their original programming isn't going well - does anyone really watch that anyway?
@whatupay4sports @WaltGekko And the problem with that is there may not be enough content for an NBCSN2 even with the NBA. There isn't enough content right now for NBCSN1, if you don't count the event conflicts.
NBC has to find the right balance for fall, winter, spring and summer sports leagues. ESPN, for years, had a near monopoly on sports rights and could bump up events for other events whenever they feel like it. That's why fans of NHL and MLS team were complaining for years.
@ScottBravesFan So you clearly missed this article that outlines how the Gold Cup final between a second-tier US squad against a second-tier PANAMA team out-drew Sunday night baseball, with a link to how baseball's ratings are plummeting? Thought so...
ESPN overpaid for baseball because they need the inventory over the summer, plain and simple. Once the NBA Finals end, they have nothing to fill the time until NFL training camps open. I know it's hard to wrap your head around as a self-professed Braves fan, but baseball is a sport that is in serious trouble.
Beyond that, your critique of ESPN's handling of the NHL way back when is a lesson in revisionist history. Hockey's ratings weren't bad, but ESPN wanted to ramp up its NBA and college hoops coverage - there's just not enough hours in a day to be able to showcase two major pro sports plus carving out regular spots (Big Monday, Super Tuesday, etc.) for college basketball leagues.
@ScottBravesFan You answered your own question. If the Blackhawks/Bruins series posted the highest rating ever for an NHL finals, wouldn't that imply growth - especially after a season that was shortened by a lockout? After all the labor turmoil of the past year, the fact that they still posted record numbers doesn't indicate growth to you?
Is the NHL really growing? They only had 8 million people watch the Chicago vs. Boston game 6 clinching game this year. That was a 66% increase from when the Kings beat the Devils in 2012, they only had 4 million people watching. The Blackhawks vs. Bruins series averaged 5.76 million fans, that's the highest NHL finals rating ever, but if that was the NBA or MLB it would be considered a disaster.