Open Mic

Why Sports Is Must-See TV -- Especially in the Digital Era

Hillary Atkin Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:35 AM

February 2014 will be a massive month for sports on television -- with Super Bowl XLVIII slated for Feb. 2 on Fox and the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, opening five days later with wall-to-wall coverage running through Feb. 23 on NBC networks.

But just about any day of the week is a big one in the television sports industry, because sports is one of the few categories of programming that doesn't lend itself to delayed viewing or binge-watching. It just about must be seen live.

That primacy was the timely theme in the final installment for 2013 of the Hollywood Radio & Television Society’s Newsmaker Luncheon Series, "Sports on TV: The Drive for Live," held earlier this month at the Beverly Hilton's International Ballroom.

Much as she does as a commentator and host on ESPN, Sage Steele tried to get to the heart of the matter with the players in the room, whose uniforms were unnumbered, but generally consisted of sport jackets with dress shirts. The score was 2-2, tie vs. no tie.

The team consisted of Peter Guber, chairman and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment Group; Mark Lazarus, chairman, NBC Sports Group; David Rone, president, sports, news and local programming, Time Warner Cable; and Eric Shanks, president, COO and executive producer, Fox Sports.

"Sports, TV and money are my favorite things," Lazarus admitted off the top, talking about why he loves his job, after revealing his proudest moment was instituting and integrating all of the digital coverage on NBC platforms at the London Olympics last summer.

Rone had an Olympic backstory to tell as well, recalling that as a production assistant in 1994, he was the guy who was somehow able to get everyone's underwear washed at Lillehammer, ensuring a promotion that led him up the ranks to where he is today.

For Guber, who owns the NBA's Golden State Warriors and is an owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, his extensive background in the film business allows him to overcome the omnipresent fear of failure in sports.

There is always a fear of failing in new ventures. But that didn’t stop Shanks, the EP of all Fox Sports productions, who with COO Randy Freer was the driving force behind the successful launch of Fox Sports’ new networks this past summer.

Sports has it all: drama, suspense, anger, comedy, jubilation, amongst a range of other human emotions. Despite the plethora of reality competition shows that solicit viewer voting, it may be the one area where audiences really feel that they make a difference in the outcome.

As for the dominance of live programming, witness the recent ratings success of the live performance of "The Sound of Music” on NBC. A vast majority of viewers knew the story and how it ended, echoing how research showed that viewers who watched Olympic competitions on digital platforms were more likely to watch them on television again, despite knowing the outcome.

"Roughly 30 million watched a night,” Lazarus said of the London Olympics, and he then went on to wax euphoric about the upcoming games in Sochi. "They’re pop culture, they’re nationalism. With packages and curated stories, we make you care about someone you don't know. We've added digital abilities that allow you to embrace technology and to use it to your advantage. The ability to monetize is a good deal for our shareholders."

All of the panelists hold strong opinions about the role of social media and sports that certainly seem applicable to other areas.

"I'm always there, whether it's on Facebook or Twitter. Re-tweeting you makes you more than a sideline reporter," said Shanks.

“It is life. To not be there is to be irrelevant," Rone said, remarking that Google and Netflix would probably soon be (high-paying) customers of sports product.

It was Guber who may have summed it up best. "The objective is to get butts in the seats," he said. "How do you connect audiences who want your product and migrate them to sponsors? I have to find a product and connect emotionally with audiences who are the best advocates in growing your business. We are social beings. Facebook didn't create this. There are infinite calls to action asking you to spend your time watching them -- a lot of moving parts. We need to provide a robust way of connecting."