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MLB is fixing its blackout policy!!! (not really)

Everyone loves to hate MLB’s “outdated” blackout policies. Of course the NBA and NHL have similar policies and presumably don’t allow you to watch in-market teams online, and they don’t come in for nearly as much hatred, so perhaps the hate towards MLB’s blackout policies is more part of a larger rush to rag on MLB rather than cause of what’s ailing it. Or perhaps it’s because NBA and NHL teams’ blackout areas don’t reach out to a ridiculous extent with no regard to the actual availability of the teams, with the result that areas further away from any MLB teams end up blacked out of more teams than they were if they were closer, with the end result that if you live in Charlotte, the fifth-largest market without an MLB team, you’re blacked out of the Nationals, Orioles, Braves, and Reds, with some markets blacked out of even more teams!

But fret not, because MLB Advanced Media may be about to fix those notorious blackout rules – with a catch:

In an interview this week, Bob Bowman said he is optimistic that a deal could be reached soon with various cable operators, channels and ballclubs. The catch is that even with an MLB.TV subscription, which starts at $20 a month, fans will also need a cable or satellite TV subscription to view hometown teams at home.

That doesn’t seem like it would actually fix any of the problems people have with the blackout rules. People who don’t have a cable subscription still won’t be able to watch any of their local teams’ games; okay, fine, baseball doesn’t want to fix that problem because they’re raking in too much money from RSNs, and baseball games on RSNs are the biggest obstacle to cord-cutting at the moment because of the tremendous popularity of local baseball teams. But presumably, in order to authenticate your cable or satellite subscription you’d need to actually get the RSN your team is carried on, and if you get the RSN your team is carried on you wouldn’t need MLB.tv or MLB Extra Innings to watch it in the first place!

It seems like this change is oriented more at solving another, very real but mostly unrelated, problem: how slow RSNs have been at embracing streaming. The Yankees shut down their ridiculously-expensive streaming service after five underwhelming seasons this year, leaving no US teams with any in-market streaming capabilities. The main issue appears to be that RSNs want to offer streaming at no additional cost while teams want to be reimbursed on top of what they’re already being paid to be on the RSN to begin with, at a time when virtually every national rights deal includes streaming rights, and the distinction between carriage on linear television and streaming services is an artifact of times past. MLBAM’s solution appears to be using the existing MLB.tv infrastructure to create in-market streaming for all teams through brute force, with an eye towards seeing how much extra revenue they can collect that way while still forcing customers to authenticate (though don’t expect it to be very successful when you’re charging more than what YES was charging – $20 a month v. $69.95 a year). If that’s what you want to do, that’s great, but don’t bill it as “fixing the blackout rules” when it’s not.

When and how did broadcast television lose the battle to cable?

What is the most popular programming on television this summer? What network is most attracting viewers’ attention with all the choices out there?

Is it NBC on the back of its hit reality show America’s Got Talent?

Is it CBS and its collection of shows popular with all ages, from Big Brother to 60 Minutes?

Is it ABC with shows like The Bachelorette? Or Fox with MasterChef and Hell’s Kitchen?

Perhaps it’s something on cable? Might it be TNT on the back of Major Crimes and Rizzoli and Isles?

Perhaps it’s USA on the back of the insanely popular WWE Raw?

Perhaps it’s seasonal and occasional programming like Shark Week on Discovery or Sharknado 2 on SyFy?

Perhaps it’s whatever ESPN puts on, since sports seems to be the big thing these days?

The correct answer is none of the above.

For 12 of the 24 markets where at least one relevant RSN isn’t embroiled in carriage disputes, the correct answer is the local baseball team on the local RSN, according to Maury Brown’s analysis on Forbes.com.

Several more teams place in the top three, and every single one of the 27 US teams whose RSN isn’t embroiled in carriage disputes ranks in the top nine shows in primetime in their respective markets – regardless of how they’re doing in the standings.

All told, local baseball team games add up to an average 1.99 household rating – and that doesn’t include the viewership the Dodgers and Astros would be getting if they weren’t mired in carriage disputes, or the viewership teams get from outlying markets.

For the record, the 10th-most watched show on cable TV for the week of August 4-10 only managed a 2.2 rating – and at least two shows in the top ten didn’t air in primetime.

Forget about ESPN; it may well be RSNs and the local sports they provide that keep people tied to their cable connection more than anything else.

Out of all national baseball broadcasts in 2013, only four or five of the six World Series games drew a higher rating than Detroit Tigers regular-season games averaged through the 2014 All-Star Break. Only the remaining World Series games beat the regular-season average of the Cardinals and Pirates – and one of those teams was in that World Series. And the World Series was on broadcast, while all those local games were on cable.

Perhaps most tellingly, no sports event on cable that wasn’t a BCS or NFL game drew a better rating in 2013 than the Tigers, Cardinals, and Pirates 2014 regular-season averages.

For all that I complain about the BCS (and now the CFP) and the Final Four moving to cable, perhaps it is the absence of local Major League Baseball games on broadcast television that is the real crime. Of the many reasons why I hate the existence of “MyNetworkTV”, perhaps one of the bigger ones is that it should not have been necessary to provide programming to fill the hole on stations left behind by the CW merger. Local sports, especially baseball in summer, could have more than sufficed – if those stations were willing and able to acquire it.

By the way, MyNetworkTV was founded in 2006, two years before the BCS deal that first opened my eyes to cable’s unfair advantages over broadcast and made me worried about the march of sports events to cable.

Which brings me back to the question in the title of this post: When and how did broadcast television lose the battle to cable?

Was it the advent of the dual-revenue stream pioneered by ESPN? Was it when UPN and the WB were founded, giving formerly independent stations programming commitments that made it harder for them to air local sports? Was it when – implicitly voluntarily – broadcast stations “stopped bidding for sports rights“, surrendering them, the massive ratings they entailed, and what would turn out to be a big chunk of the reason for the existence of all of linear television, to RSNs that would in turn keep people tied to their cable connection? Was it when the CW merger happened and the stations left behind formed and/or joined MyNetworkTV rather than face an uncertain future – one that could have made them far more relevant than any alternative?

Whenever it happened, one thing is clear: the disappearance of local baseball from broadcast television is one of the great underrated stories of the rise of cable, and one of the great missed opportunities of the past few decades for broadcast – and still represents perhaps broadcast television’s greatest opportunity for relevance going forward. I still think the stations exist to support a true fifth broadcast network - in large part due to stations that held steadfastly to their independence rather than join the Fox network when it launched. But given this, I’m no longer sure how many of them would want to.

What can baseball do to save itself?


That was Keith Olbermann’s intro to last night’s show, where he used the occasion of the 20-year anniversary of the 1994 baseball strike to opine on the existential threat facing baseball today – kids not getting interested in the sport and declining national TV ratings. To that I would add weak ratings, even considering the sport’s weak general ratings, among people slightly older than kids – the 18-49 demographics advertisers love. He attributes the decline of national TV ratings to the adoption of interleague play removing the novelty factor of being able to see teams you’d otherwise only be able to see if your team made the World Series, requiring baseball to find “a new reason” to watch nationally televised games even when your team isn’t playing in them, thus keeping up the value of the national TV contract and in turn keeping smaller market teams in business. What should that new reason be, and how can baseball create it?

I’m going to assume that the problem is not that baseball is an inherently boring sport, something people have been saying for decades, even though even baseball’s fans sometimes wax poetic about the sport being “passed down from father to son”, which is another way of saying the only reason anyone would be a baseball fan is because their parents brainwashed them to be. I’m going to assume the sport can be saved when a lot of damage to its currency among younger people has already been done, which also requires leaving aside factors like steroids that might have poisoned the sport for a generation, and rendered its records, once a massive part of the mythology of the sport, untrustworthy forever. Even then, baseball has signed its new TV contract and as such there are some things it can’t change, like having TBS come out of nowhere for the postseason, and it can’t inoculate itself against cord-cutting when it’s just agreed to cut its presence on broadcast TV to a few weeks in the middle of summer and September in favor of a network that might be one of the first to go if cord-cutting results in catastrophe for linear cable TV. I’m also going to leave aside things involving the game itself like speeding up the pace of play or getting rid of Joe Buck.

With that in mind, it’s worth noting that football and basketball have the equivalent of interleague play, and significantly stronger national TV ratings – in basketball’s case, in spite of the fact that it has games on every day on cable TV just as baseball does, even though that is often perceived as “oversaturating the product”. They do this because they are able to craft a national narrative larger than any individual team, one driven by stars that encourages people all over the country to pay attention. Everyone knows the Patriots are “Tom Brady’s team”, or the Broncos are “Peyton Manning’s team”, or the Saints are “Drew Brees’ team”, and they automatically know what it means when any two of those teams square off and are willing to tune in for same. Ditto for basketball where the Cavaliers are “LeBron James’ team”, the Lakers are “Kobe Bryant’s team”, or the Former Sonics are “Kevin Durant’s team”.

Baseball is a star-driven sport – certainly more so than hockey, where the stars are only on the ice one-fourth of the time and don’t really have any more impact on the outcome than the lesser lines – and should be able to take advantage of the same factors, crafting a national narrative out of its pennant races. But there also are a lot of things football and basketball has that it doesn’t:

  • Baseball has way more games in a regular season than football or basketball – nearly double the NBA’s number. Those games are divided up into series where two teams play each other day after day. When, say, the Clippers and Celtics face off, it’s an event among many similar events over the course of the season. When the Angels and Red Sox face off, they’ll face off once on MLB Network, then again on ESPN, then again on MLB Network – and if it’s on the weekend they’ll go MLB Network, then Fox or Fox Sports 1, and then ESPN. It sort of dilutes the knowledge that these two teams are facing off when you see them two to four straight days.
  • Baseball may be a star-driven sport, but not nearly to the extent of football or basketball where one good player can completely change the fortunes of a franchise. No position player has much more than a one-ninth impact on a team’s fortunes. In football and basketball, that makes it much easier for smaller markets to join the ranks of the marquee franchises. The Moneyball era has made things easier for small-market baseball teams, but the lack of a salary cap, coupled with the need to put together a complete team on a scale not necessary in football or basketball, makes it very difficult to keep the marquee teams from being a procession of the Yankees and Red Sox over and over.
  • In the case of pitchers, it’s too difficult to ensure that a pitcher is starting on the same day as one of your marquee national TV windows.
  • Football and basketball stars are usually pre-made in college. People don’t care as much about high school or college baseball, and even if a sensation does come along they generally have to toil away in the minor leagues for a while, which people care about even less unless they have a minor league team nearby or are really interested in how their major league team’s farm system is doing.

There certainly are some things baseball can do about some of these – a while back, Awful Announcing’s Steve Lepore pointed out that the seeming dichotomy between shoving the Yankees and Red Sox down people’s throats all the time, and trying to “spread around” the wealth to all 30 MLB teams, misses that what baseball fans really want is to be able to see the good teams, whether they’re the Mets and Yankees or Brewers and Royals, square off against one another on national television, and follow the pennant races that way, and to some degree MLB Network (but not ESPN, which keeps following the former approach, and Fox, which tried the latter approach this year) has done that. Many, however, are things MLB has little to no control over, and to the extent that it does it’s probably as unlikely to try them as to get rid of interleague play. Does baseball want to substantially shrink the regular season? Is it willing to take the plunge on a salary cap?

With that in mind, perhaps the best thing baseball can do to improve its long-term fortunes, specifically in small markets, is to find a way to get rid of the RSN loophole, which is a big reason so much of MLB’s revenue sharing does come from the national TV contract. What is the RSN loophole? Well, here are the ten most valuable franchises in the major leagues according to Forbes magazine:

  1. New York Yankees, $2.5 billion
  2. Los Angeles Dodgers, $2 billion
  3. Boston Red Sox, $1.5 billion
  4. Chicago Cubs, $1.2 billion
  5. San Francisco Giants, $1 billion
  6. Philadelphia Phillies, $975 million
  7. Texas Rangers, $825 million
  8. St. Louis Cardinals, $820 million
  9. New York Mets, $800 million
  10. Anaheim Angels, $775 million

What do these teams have in common? Nine out of ten of them own all or part of the regional sports network that airs their games. The tenth, the Cardinals, are valued at a third of the level of the top-ranked Yankees – mostly because their fanbase draws from such a wide area. Owning a stake in an RSN has become all the rage in recent years, because while the rights fees that teams get from their RSNs are subject to revenue sharing, the boost that a team gets from actually owning a piece of the RSN is not. That’s allowed the Yankees to remain on top of the baseball pyramid despite the revenue sharing schemes baseball has adopted in recent years, through their ownership of YES Network. It also allows teams to benefit with money not subject to revenue sharing when other teams set up shop on the same network. When the Nets do well, the Yankees do well. When the Bruins do well, the Red Sox do well. When the Bulls do well, the Cubs do well. When the Warriors do well, the Giants do well. When the Flyers or 76ers do well, the Phillies do well. When the Mavericks or Stars do well, the Rangers do well.

The next-most valuable teams that do not own a piece of an RSN are #11 Atlanta ($730 million), which also draws from a huge fanbase built over the team’s years on WTBS; #15 Detroit ($680 million), the most popular team on a per-capita basis in baseball, and both of those two teams are from two of baseball’s larger markets; #18 Toronto ($618 million), which draws from all of Canada; and finally, #19 Minnesota ($605 million) and #20 Cincinnati ($600 million), two teams in the bottom half of all major league teams with four teams valued at double their value, and that don’t even double up the poorest team in baseball, the $485 million Tampa Bay Rays. The NBA and NHL don’t have this problem, either because they try harder to reach for the RSN dollar or the existence of the salary cap reduces the incentive to own a stake. Here is the complete list of NBA and NHL teams to own a stake of their RSN: Bulls, Blackhawks, Rockets, Bruins, Celtics, Maple Leafs. The seven richest baseball teams all own stakes of RSNs, and the number of teams in other sports that own pieces of RSNs are six total.

What can baseball do about this? They could try and find a way to go after revenue obtained from owning RSN stakes and draw it into the revenue-sharing fold. They could institute a salary cap and blunt the incentive to cheat the revenue-sharing system. Or they could look at the ongoing carriage disputes plaguing CSN Houston and Sportsnet LA – not to mention how ugly the dispute between the Orioles and Nationals over MASN has gotten – and wonder if the lucrative RSN market is built on a house of cards, the scam that is the cable subscription fee model, that is starting to come tumbling down, and find a way to pre-empt them all and save even the richest MLB teams from themselves, while also putting themselves in better position than their competitors for the future of video content. Again, baseball has already signed its national TV contract and is stuck with its cable-heavy nature for the foreseeable future, and the NBA may yet go the other way, but there might still be quite a bit baseball could do on the local front.

The potential of the American Sports Network

The Sinclair Broadcast Group is representative of everything wrong with broadcasting in the new millennium. During the 00′s they became notorious for repeatedly airing “documentaries” on their stations that were hit pieces on Democratic figures and causes, most notoriously one on the Swift Boat accusations against John Kerry in 2004. Even before that they were a dirty word in media consolidation circles for their use of shell companies to circumvent FCC rules prohibiting owning more than one station in a market (and later, owning more than two in a large market). Recently, they’ve gone on an acquisition binge, including DC-based Allbritton and Seattle-based Fisher, that has them bumping up against another FCC limit: if the FCC goes forward with eliminating the “UHF discount” (counting UHF stations as only half their market value against the national cap) Sinclair will be bumping up against the limit in a way that the companies owning the stations in the largest markets – and who also own the very networks Sinclair is affiliated with – will not be.

But Sinclair’s market power also gives it considerable influence over the future direction of the broadcast industry. And in that light, today’s announcement of the American Sports Network, or ASN, fits so perfectly into the framework I laid out a year ago that I can’t help but wonder whether someone at Sinclair read the version of that post I put on RabbitEars.info. Assuming it’s not so dependent on retransmission consent revenue that it results in Sinclair undermining their own nominal means of distribution, it could well be the key to the broadcast industry’s turning around its fortunes. And though it launches with only five mid-to-low-tier college conferences on board (only one of which plays FBS football), it could well prove to have a better shot at running down ESPN than any other player that has come along so far.

ASN will initially be distributed primarily across Sinclair’s CW and MyNetworkTV affiliates, and on digital subchannels on Sinclair’s other stations. The press release also mentions that “other broadcasters” are interested in airing ASN content as well. This makes me wonder whether Sinclair’s long-term plan is to turn ASN into a potential replacement for the CW and/or MyNet, especially in light of yesterday’s news of Fox’s attempt to buy Time Warner, which would have given them half-control of the CW and likely resulted in either the CW turning into CBS’ version of MyNet or the closing of MyNet entirely (and especially if they throw in Ring of Honor wrestling). The press release also mentions the potential launch of “new cable networks and digital platforms” surrounding ASN content, pending securing agreements with cable providers – which could refer to an aspect of what I had in mind last year I didn’t dare mention or even hint at, which would allow ASN, were they to set their sights much, much higher than the likes of Conference USA, to avoid the pitfalls that were the downfall of Fox Sports Net.

Throughout the 90s, many people felt that the collection of regional sports networks across the country, including the majority of them operating under the SportsChannel and Prime names, were they to join together as a single force, could put together a sports empire rivaling ESPN, given their distribution advantages and the attractive programming from local teams they could offer. But when Rupert Murdoch bought the SportsChannel and Prime networks with an eye to doing just that, the very thing that looked like so much of an asset proved to be FSN’s undoing. Any national programming FSN had was prone to being pre-empted for local teams’ games, which meant any entity with a national programming arrangement with FSN automatically had a worse deal than if they were with anyone else (something then-Pac-10 fans especially chafed at in the early-to-mid-00′s), and any national studio shows couldn’t count on a consistent time slot or even consistently airing at all. (I remember how upset I was when the Mariners played an East Coast game that pre-empted “I, Max”, the show Max Kellerman got from FSN upon leaving ESPN, entirely.) Now the rise of the RSN owned by the team playing on it, coupled with the rise of Comcast as an RSN player and aided by Fox’s own actions, has taken Fox’s once-complete hegemony over the RSN marketplace and greatly dismantled it.

Suppose Sinclair were to sign up a much bigger array of content for ASN – major professional sports and major college conferences, maybe some top mid-majors as well – and signed up affiliates from all over the country. And suppose they then launched a cable channel that amounted to an ASN national feed, taking content from their various rights deals and distributing them to a national audience. Sinclair could offer certain ASN programming “nationally” to various ASN stations, but even if that programming were to be rejected or pre-empted for something of local import, Sinclair could simply stick it on the ASN national feed, ensuring truly national distribution for the biggest content Sinclair has. Sinclair could then have an alternate feed to stick on other programming in markets where the main ASN game is airing on the local ASN station. In effect, rather than being inferior to any cable network with decent national distribution, being on the ASN national feed would be a sort of hybrid between being on a national broadcast network and being on an ESPN knockoff.

For ASN to really reach its potential, the FCC (and Congress) would need to fix the broken economics of the broadcast business, where broadcast stations and networks must either embrace the retransmission consent regime and thus see themselves as cable networks first and foremost, or inexorably lose programming to actual cable networks with their decided monetary advantages. Depending on how it’s done, and how the Internet shakes up the live video marketplace, it could completely upend the competitive landscape and destroy the potential of most of the ideas (not to mention the metaphors) in the previous paragraph. But if it happens, here’s the blueprint I would have for ASN to succeed where FSN failed and for the broadcast industry in general to bounce back from the point where its own nominal guardians have turned against it:

  • Convince teams, leagues, and conferences that between the FCC’s reforms and the impact of the Internet, the cable network market is badly oversaturated, and given the superiority of the technology of broadcasting (leaving aside the economics and regulatory landscape surrounding it), the regional sports network and league- and conference-owned network, though in better shape than most cable networks, is a bad way to go, especially considering the bitter carriage disputes surrounding them. Convince stations around the country of the same thing and that whatever obstacles they may face in the short term will be outweighed in the long term by eliminating one of the biggest barriers left to widespread cord-cutting.
  • Offer to negotiate on behalf of every English-language general-entertainment station not associated with one of the major networks (or a network seriously trying to be one of the major networks), not just ASN stations. Then make a deal with the leagues: so long as there are stations available, every game of a team that claims a given market will be televised, but any game there’s not enough stations for cannot be blacked out on the out-of-market package. This may take the form of an NFL-esque deal where ASN handles the distribution of every team’s game not on a non-ASN national platform. This is especially important for baseball, but allowing the ASN national feed to take content from any station allows the national feed to take content from any team or conference it wants without tipping the scale in negotiations towards ASN stations. (Some side notes: first, “digital subchannels” are a failure and I don’t see them surviving the upcoming FCC-mandated auction and repack; otherwise the ASN national feed might be one. Second, this would be largely dependent on CBS and Fox being open to aiding something that might take a bite out of their main networks in order to maximize the number of stations available in the largest markets; if they aren’t, the FCC might have to repeal or severely tighten the duopoly rules, which could leave Sinclair unable to run ASN. Third, the borders between conferences are blurry enough now that many areas may be within the sphere of influence of multiple conferences, so it may not be possible for ASN to handle them all alone; fortunately, more markets than you think have at least two stations of the type I discuss here even with a fifth network, especially if you count the enigmatic Ion network. And fourth, every game is more than any station has ever showed in a non-NFL professional sport, but in retrospect that practice merely opened the door for the RSN to walk in and undermine independent broadcasters, at least sooner than it could have.)
  • The existence of the ASN national feed and rise of the Internet may obviate the need for league-owned networks. Some college conferences (namely the SEC and Big Ten) may be confident of their ability to keep their conference networks going even under the new economics, given the passion of their fanbases. To counter this, export the conferences you do have to the entire country. You don’t have to give national distribution to every single conference, but if most of SEC and Big Ten territory can get ACC or Big 12 games for free (and hopefully, without needing a kludge to get them on a mobile device), and can’t do the same with the SEC and Big Ten, it could put a big scare into the both of them.
  • Don’t get involved with the NFL unless it falls in your lap, then snap it up in a heartbeat. Some of your stations are probably going to show NFL preseason games and cable-game simulcasts without your help.

The end result could be a landscape where only two cable sports networks are left: ESPN and the ASN national feed (assuming cable networks themselves still exist as we know them once the Internet is done with them). Things that don’t fit the local team-sports framework like NASCAR and golf would probably go to ESPN, and ESPN would probably still have important maj0r-league pro sports games, but events like the college football national championship game would abandon ship and return to major broadcast networks where they belong, and ASN’s combination of national distribution and local broadcast stations could give it a significant advantage in any negotiations, and they could find themselves in possession of important MLB, NBA, and – perhaps especially – NHL playoff games.

Is this a bit of a utopian pipe dream? Sure – this is the sort of idle imagining I spend way too much of my free time on and then am hesitant to put on the blog because it has so little relation to reality. This one, though, has just enough relation to reality to be an enticing vision for those that believe in broadcast television – and sometimes, a concrete yet distant vision is just what’s needed to be the impetus for change. If the future of broadcast television lies in live sports, this may be the first, halting acknowledgement of that fact – and the start of broadcast television’s comeback. The only problem is, is it too late?

Does Sports Explain Why Fox Wanted to Buy Time Warner?

We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the launch of Fox Sports 1, and despite what the people in charge have said publicly, it has to be considered a big disappointment. The most-watched programming on the channel tends to be NASCAR-related… most of which the channel already had when it was Speed, and even if it doesn’t tends to appeal mostly to people who already knew where Speed was. Except for NASCAR programming, the gap between Fox Sports 1 and ESPN has been cavernous, with FS1 even unable to catch ESPN2 and struggling to pull away from NBCSN, and despite public appeals for patience the fact that FS1 has cancelled most of its launch lineup suggests the internal attitude is something else (especially with Fox offering make-goods to FS1 advertisers on the World Series). Other than NASCAR, the channel’s brightest spots so far are probably UFC and college football, and a) UFC programming has tanked relative to the same shows on FX and ratings for college football and basketball games are generally way behind games with similar appeal on ESPN or ESPN2 and b) they haven’t had very good retention for Fox Sports Live (something NASCAR has oddly been better at). Fox’s hopes are now pinned on the baseball playoffs to further bump up FS1 ratings, and after that Fox will be hoping the World Cup and US Open golf help FS1 more than FS1 hurts them (and the World Cup is the sort of short-run event programming that is likely to bump it up in the short term but have little long-term effect, as the Olympics has for NBCSN). If Fox were to pick up Big Ten rights it would be a big help, but they’re also making a long-shot run at NBA rights – possibly in addition to ESPN and Turner rather than replacing one of them. Fox’s biggest short-term sustainable boost they have to look forward to is probably NASCAR rights – which, besides attracting an audience already familiar with the channel when it was Speed, are uniquely unlikely to check out and are sometimes openly hostile to the rest of FS1′s “stick-and-ball” lineup.

Could this help explain why Rupert Murdoch made a run at buying Time Warner in June?

Let me be upfront that I personally would dread a merger of Fox and Time Warner that would create an absolute behemoth, place CNN under the Fox umbrella, and further degrade broadcast television by removing quite possibly the only company with the means and motivation to launch a true fifth network (but that’s another story) and, by inheriting Time Warner’s partnership in the CW, leave Fox with little motivation to keep running MyNetworkTV. (Though if that leaves Tribune to go without the CW, it might actually turn out to be the best possible outcome.) But strictly from a sports perspective, even though some people have naively wondered whether CBS and Time Warner would merge based on their partnerships on March Madness and the CW and their complementary sports assets and lack of direct competition outside premium cable channels, a Fox-Time Warner merger makes a lot more sense.

From the dawn of cable television, Turner has been a leader in sports programming, not being passed by ESPN until the 90s, and for all the talk of efforts by Fox, NBC, and others to make a run at ESPN, Turner has remained the company with the strongest assets to challenge ESPN of anyone, and TBS and TNT have remained the biggest non-ESPN sports destinations on cable, even with the impending loss of NASCAR programming and cutting back on MLB. Suppose Fox were to acquire Time Warner and move all the sports programming currently on TBS and TNT to FS1. Suddenly FS1 would have:

  • Turner’s high-profile critically-acclaimed NBA coverage, including Marv Albert and Charles Barkley, with games running all the way to the conference finals plus the NBA All-Star Game, control of NBATV as well, and a pretty good case to steal the broadcast component of the package away from ABC during the next negotiations (a potential nightmare scenario for the NHL)
  • Control over the ENTIRE MLB postseason aside from one measly wild-card game on ESPN
  • Control of much of March Madness and possibly the ability to muscle CBS out of the Tournament, keeping March Madness to itself on Fox, FS1, and some other channels (FX and/or Fox News or CNN could replace TBS or TNT; if the NCAA wasn’t willing to accept CBS Sports Network they’re unlikely to accept FS2 as is) and maybe bringing Gus Johnson back to the event that made him famous
  • The first two rounds of the PGA Championship and some auxillary coverage of the later two rounds, adding some meat to Fox’s golf-coverage bones
  • Fox would also take over HBO and its sports coverage, possibly meaning higher-profile boxing cards on FS1 and/or UFC cards on HBO

Again, I would hope this merger doesn’t happen – the general consensus is that just because Murdoch was told “no” now doesn’t mean he’s going to take that for an answer – but it wouldn’t be the first time sports was a big impetus for a larger media deal (see Comcast’s hostile takeover attempt of Disney and later actual acquisition of NBC) and would give ESPN some legitimate reason to worry about a potential challenger to their throne, something FS1 has largely failed at so far.

(The potential irony? If all proposed media deals go through, Time Warner’s former cable division could end up owned by a direct competitor.)

2013 Year in Review: Sports Ratings Roundup Part II

Continuing from Friday’s Part I, here is every event I know of that:

  • Is known to have over a million viewers (though that really ends up meaning 980k) but less than a 1.5 household rating, or
  • Is one of a number of other events I consider to be interesting and relevant, usually the most-watched event of a particular sport on a given network or its championship event.

This is the part that is affected by the Son of the Bronx shutdown. The purpose of these posts is to establish the popularity of various sports, and going down to 2.0 or 1.5 establishes it for only the very biggest. For those events that have niche audiences even for the networks that are televising them, this may have been my only chance to establish viewership levels for them that could be compared apples-to-apples to other events. This is especially the case for the MLS and WNBA, two leagues that receive press well out of proportion to their actual popularity. (The MLS Cup would have gotten over a million viewers if you count ESPN and UniMas together, but I explained in Part I why I don’t put much stock in that.)

This time PPV buyrates are put in the viewership column. As before, my sources are TVbytheNumbers, The Futon Critic, Sports Media Watch, SportsBusiness Daily, and Son of the Bronx. Click here to learn more about how to read the charts. Read More »

2013 Year in Review: Sports Ratings Roundup Part I

In 2009 I did a sports ratings roundup post for events in 2008, and I intended to do it again for 2009 but let my RSS feeds drop off. Last year, however, I decided to not only take it up again, but buckle down and extend the post as far down as I could take it. As it turned out, last year was the best possible year to do this, even without quadrennial events like the Olympics or World Cup, as it’s the only full calendar year that Son of the Bronx was posting full ratings for every show of any kind on the all-sports networks before he shut the blog down some months ago. Given the range I’m working with, the impact of SotB on this list is fairly minimal (especially with TVbytheNumbers now doing Saturday cable ratings, which they weren’t doing for much of 2013, and The Futon Critic ignoring most college basketball games in 2012-13 but including them this past year), but household ratings for a number of events on the ESPNs or NBCSN might not be here if it weren’t for him, and my ambitions to do several sport-specific lists might be dashed. (SotB is now posting just the top 10 programs from each network on Awful Announcing, which is good for some purposes but not for others, especially where regular ESPN is concerned and especially during football season.)

With that out of the way, with or without SotB, the remarkable scope of the coverage TVBTN and The Futon Critic have given to cable networks have meant that the biggest obstacle to this list’s construction is actually daytime broadcast events; SportsBusiness Daily’s reports of viewership for those events are often rounded to the ten-thousands or hundred-thousands place, when viewership isn’t omitted entirely. I originally hoped to be able to extend the list well beyond Sports Media Watch’s year-end Top 50 Most-Watched Sports Events lists (one that includes the NFL and one that doesn’t), but found out there’s a good reason SMW’s lists stopped where they did. CBS dissuaded me; they are particularly prone to not report viewership for their events, and two in particular had a capping effect on SMW’s list. A grand total of two NFL singleheader windows prevented an overall most-watched list from extending all the way down to encompass the entire non-NFL list, which was itself stopped by, of all things, the March Madness selection show. I decided to get around that by ordering the list by the more generally available (at least with SotB) household rating, as my previous list was, with ties broken by viewership, but I’ve placed any event without viewers reported at the bottom of all events with its rating, sorted by date, as a way of naming and shaming those events and networks that don’t provide as much information as they should.

For even that to be as useful as it could be, I had to omit any events on Spanish-language networks; the fact that SBD, for some reason, didn’t report any ratings or viewership for Univision’s coverage of the Confederations Cup, even when Univision itself put out press releases with that information for some matches (but not with very specific viewership or any household ratings), forced the issue there. As much as Univision likes to tout how it’s on par with the four major networks and some people like to claim that assessing the popularity of sports events in this country isn’t complete without Spanish-language television, I really think – and I don’t mean this to be racist or culturally imperialistic – that Spanish-language TV should be treated as though it were a different country. Going by the Spanish-language ratings, you’d think the Mexican national team was as if not more popular than the US one, and that Liga MX is by far the most popular club soccer league in this country, far outpacing the Premier League. Cultural assimilation may change those things, so they may not translate to English-language TV in the long term. For better or worse, Spanish speakers aren’t part of or reflected in the conversation about soccer in this country, let alone sports in general, for obvious reasons. Yes, many English speakers turn on Univision for big events, but that may be changing with the popularity of the EPL (not as widely available in Spanish) and ESPN’s subsequent embrace of British commentators. Most notable Spanish-language numbers should be available here.

CBS also served to put up a limit on how far I could go with my English-only household-rating-focused approach, but for a different reason that had nothing to do with them directly. SBD, for whatever reason, will be unable to post broadcast ratings on Friday if the end-of-week Nielsen ratings are delayed a single day by holidays (those numbers usually come out on Tuesday on non-holiday weeks so SBD should have time to get them by Thursday night even with a delay but whatever), and when that happens SBD will just give up and not put out the ratings at all rather than, say, posting them on Monday, preferring to devote time on Monday to the useless overnights. Where this really hurt was on Labor Day Weekend, when CBS had a pretty hype-worthy US Open match between Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens on the Sunday thereof that I wasn’t able to find ratings or viewership for.

Based on CBS’ numbers for Labor Day itself that SBD did report (since it fell into the following Nielsen week), and comparing them to the overnights CBS got for the same time slot, I determined that CBS’ viewership numbers for the Williams-Stephens match and surrounding timeslot was probably in the 2 million range, so I decided to cap the list at a 1.5 household rating, which seemed pretty safe but isn’t much of an improvement over the 2.0 mark I put up last time. I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to go even that low in the future, though, although the popular events get pretty weird fast once you get below or even at 1.5, especially on broadcast, some of which you’ll see below.

With all that as a preamble, here are the English-language numbers for every sporting event of 2013 with a household rating between 7.5 and 1.5. Any event with a higher rating would appear on my Top 200 Live Events list. Dark blue is the NFL, light blue college football, orange college basketball, red the NBA, dark red NASCAR, purple MLB, green golf, and anything else is white. I’ve also translated boxing and UFC PPV buyrates to household ratings for this chart only. Click here to learn more about how to read the charts. Read More »

The 200 Most-Watched Live Events of 2013

If, as I’ve suggested, the only purpose of linear television going forward will be to show live events that many people want to watch at the same time, then ratings for live events become a particularly important category to look at, because they form the underpinning of everything else. So here are the 200 most-viewed live programs of 2013 to my knowledge, with the top 50 ranked.

Breaking news outside of primetime (which basically means outside the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bomber), and other non-primetime news events such as the funeral for Nelson Mandela, are not counted because I couldn’t find any numbers for them. I’ve also guesstimated where to put the Tournament of Roses Parade and one NFL window because viewers (or at least, reliable viewer numbers) weren’t reported for them. I also assumed all non-audition episodes of American Idol were live, but marked the Hollywood and Vegas episodes with question marks. Events in red are news events; in blue are NFL games; in green are other sports events; in orange are awards shows; in purple are reality shows; and all other events are white. Read More »

2013 UFC and MMA Ratings Wrap-Up

Here are the top 50 most-watched live MMA cards of 2013, 30 from UFC and 20 from Bellator, with prelims and main cards separated out. Below that are full numbers for every UFC card not on Fuel/FS2 in chronological order. See here for all Fuel/FS2 main cards (not prelims) as well as numbers for every episode of The Ultimate Fighter.

Numbers for boxing are not consistently well-reported with enough specificity for my tastes, but this contains, to my knowledge, viewership for every boxing match of 2013 on HBO and Showtime with over a million viewers.

Viewership and household ratings for Fox Sports 1 cards from Son of the Bronx. Viewership and household ratings for Fox and some other cards from SportsBusiness Daily. Where 18-49 ratings appear, viewership and 18-49 ratings from The Futon Critic, with some from TVbytheNumbers. PPV buyrates from Wikipedia. Other numbers from various other sources. Click here to learn more about how to read the charts. Read More »

Is There a Place for Common Sense in Supreme Court Decisions?

The Supreme Court Wednesday ruled 6-3 against Aereo, declaring the start-up’s array of miniature antennas available for rent to consumers in violation of copyright law. Astoundingly, the three dissenters were Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, three of the court’s more conservative members. If you had to pick one person to symbolize the modern Supreme Court’s tendency to favor moneyed interests over ordinary Americans, the law, intent of the Constitution, and precedent be damned, it would probably be Scalia, followed by Thomas, then Alito and Chief Justice Roberts neck-in-neck. I would never have expected the conservatives to actually believe what they say they do enough to stand with the consumer and the scrappy, innovative start-up at the expense of the big, multi-national conglomerates, and as much as Democratic politicians may be in bed with Hollywood, I never would have expected every last one of the liberal justices to stand with the big corporations against the ordinary American. I know President Obama’s Justice Department filed a brief supporting broadcasters, but that was widely seen as disappointing, not sadly expected; I suspect this is an issue on which the Democratic decision-makers are well out of step with their rank and file. Maybe I’m just naïve (support in Congress and opposition among the public to SOPA was, after all, largely bipartisan), but it would be hard for me to deal with it if this turned out to be an issue on which I stand with conservatives and against Democrats.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. Rather, I want to talk about the tendency for pro-Aereo corners of the blogosphere (as well as Aereo itself) to decry the decision as being obviously wrong, to gloss over the sketchier elements of what Aereo was trying to do, take its own description of it at face value, and dismiss the majority’s reasoning as the “looks-like-a-duck test“, to speak of Aereo’s setup being designed to follow the law as opposed to “going around” it as though that were more than a semantic distinction. One of the things Americans don’t like about the legal system is the tendency to create overly complicated documents written in horrendously obtuse language with no resemblance to anything ordinary Americans could recognize so that people can get off on obscure technicalities. But when the Supreme Court finally looks past the technicalities and boils things down to what they actually are, but we happen to be on the side that wanted to take advantage of those technicalities, suddenly we want the court to follow the obtuse legal language, ignore what we’re actually trying to do, and let us skirt through the loophole?

I personally felt that, while Aereo was clearly trying to take advantage of a loophole in the law, it was the place of Congress, not the Supreme Court, to close it, and it sounds like the commenters on (the very liberal) Daily Kos agree with me. But I don’t think we’re giving the position the majority accepted enough credit. Leaving aside the technicalities of how it all works, what Aereo was selling was the ability to watch broadcast television stations, regardless of whether you had the ability to view them at your current location if you had an antenna, indeed without you needing to worry about having an antenna or where it was located. You, the viewer, don’t see where Aereo’s antenna is and don’t even necessarily know anything about where Aereo is getting the signals from. All you know is that you are giving Aereo money and they are supplying you with a bunch of television channels you may or may not be able to receive otherwise. Boiled down to those facts, there really is very little difference between Aereo and basic cable service (and some of the things Aereo had said about potentially carrying cable channels didn’t really help their case).

What this shows is that our communications and copyright laws are woefully outdated and rooted in assumptions that don’t hold water, that failed to anticipate technological developments that rendered the technological distinctions encoded in the law obsolete. The entire Aereo affair had a company resorting to technological contortions to provide a fairly basic service there was a clear demand for and broadcasters being undermined by the very nature of, and wanting to be rid of, their own nominal method of delivery, their own neglect of which helped create the demand for Aereo in the first place (and while they’ve won this battle, they may ultimately lose the war). The court said that if Aereo wanted relief they should go to Congress when they should have said that to the broadcasters, not only because that would have been the right approach but because the broadcasters would likely have been more able to get that relief. But putting the onus on Aereo does give Congress incentive to clear up a regulatory framework that assumes the primacy of the obsolete technology of cable television and undermines the potential of broadcasting, while creating perverse and unintentional disincentives for maximizing the distribution of content.