Well, NBC Sports Network (FKA Versus) apparently has a long way to go to become the major player in the sports TV scene it set out to be. SportsBusiness Journal’s John Ourand reported yesterday on the nascent channel’s beginning spot on the ratings totem pole, and… it’s a low spot:
Despite heavy promotion on the NBC broadcast network and a focus on higher-quality shows, viewership for NBC Sports Network is down 21 percent on a total-day basis from January 2011 to January 2012. In January 2011, Versus averaged 78,000 viewers. In January 2012, the first month of NBC Sports Network, that figure dropped to 62,000.
Now, if you put on your cynic hat, you might say: “Despite a focus on higher quality shows? They’re probably pulling lower ratings because of that!” And you might be right. At least, that’s what NBCSN honchos seem to be betting on. There’s head of programming Jon Miller:
“We knew coming into this that if we were going to change this network and create, basically, a new sports network from scratch, we’re going to have some short-term issues ratings-wise. But understand at the end of the day, it’s a long race. And slow-and-steady wins it.”
And of course, no one could have expected this would be a smashing success right away. ESPN’s dominance of 24-hour televised sports programming is all-consuming (and as Those Guys Have All the Fun documented, it didn’t get that way especially quickly), and it takes a while to make a dent in that. Miller added, in a reference to Versus shows canceled for the re-brand:
“We had a lot of what I call empty rating points on our air. That means there are programs that delivered big audiences, but you couldn’t monetize them. You couldn’t sell them.”
What that sounds like to us: “We were catering to the lowest common denominator, and now we’re not.” Examples of the “higher-quality shows” Ourand talked about were Costas Tonight, starring renowned interviewer/scolder Bob Costas, and Cold War on Ice, a documentary. The ideal long-term plan seems to be: don’t pander for the most eyeballs, but keep the eyeballs you get coming back.
And it might work. Again, one month is too early to panic, and the network’s live programming seems to be working out (ratings for both NHL and IndyCar telecasts showed recent improvement). Even so, though, Ourand cited ad sales executives who asked to remain anonymous that the early struggles are a “concern.” As hard as it is to do, you’d always like to start strong – and if these early struggles continue for a few extra months, that “concern” over the network’s viability will get more and more serious.