NBA gives strength to `Weakest Link’

Jun 18, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The blurring of lines between sports and entertainment, especially when it comes to promoting network TV series, usually means seeing stars of prime-time shows waving from the stands or taking turns in the announcing booth.
Now NBC has taken it to the next level, offering half-time editions of its fledgling game show hit “Weakest Link,” which soared to 60-percent-plus rating increases during NBC Sports’ coverage of the NBA Finals the past two weeks.
For the first and second games of the NBA championship series between the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers, NBC made the unorthodox move of inserting specially produced 10-minute editions of a sports-themed “Weakest Link.”
With such NBC Sports commentators as Bill Walton and Chipper Jones taking the contestant hot seats against acerbic quiz master Anne Robinson, the abbreviated versions of “Weakest Link” scored 8.0 ratings and 8.8 ratings in the adults 18 to 49 demographic on June 8 and 10, respectively, according to Nielsen Media Research national averages. Averaging an 8.4 rating over the two telecasts, “Weakest Link” posted an impressive 65 percent increase over its 5.2 rating/14 share season-to-date average in the key young-adult demo.
“It just seemed like it was a natural opportunity where we could do a basketball-themed game show to keep the core NBA viewers and build on the casual audience that may leave the [TV] set at half-time,” said Mitch Metcalf, NBC Entertainment’s senior vice president of programming and scheduling. “Conversely it [was] also about getting sampling for `Weakest Link’ among the lower-quintile viewers who don’t watch much other television other than sporting events.”
The placement of entertainment series at half-time, while probably not unprecedented, did propel “Weakest Link’s” normal 9 p.m.-to-10 p.m. (ET) Monday airing on June 11 to post 20 percent week-to-week growth (6.0/17 vs. 5.0/13 in adults 18 to 49) in the same time slot. Since moving up an hour from its previous 8 p.m. Monday slot, the 9 p.m. run of “Weakest Link” has been averaging a 5.6 rating in adults 18 to 49 (May 21-June 11), up 47 percent over what NBC averaged previously this season.
Most game shows, such as ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and syndication’s “Wheel of Fortune,” tend to skew older and rarely achieve above a 4 rating in adults 18 to 49. Yet Mr. Metcalf contends that “Weakest Link” is “atypical” in its appeal to younger viewers, and he sees the special exposures within NBA telecasts as a bonus to NBC.
“It just seemed like a natural fit, because `Weakest Link’ already reaches a younger segment of the audience and is still bucking all the rules about older viewers being the ones gravitating to game shows,” Mr. Metcalf said.
Although the half-time “Weakest Links” indeed scored impressive ratings, some newspaper sports critics asserted it was nothing more than shameless self-promotion-when hoops analysis and statistics are often what the hard-core sports viewers expect at half-time. Nevertheless, Mr. Metcalf said the sports-themed trivia questions were “tailored in a fun, `You Don’t Know Jack’-style that appealed to both the hard-core and casual sports fans. Editorially, we think both divisions did a great job making it fit in with NBA product,” he added.
Given the early success of the entertainment experiment at half-time, which also included live concerts by musical acts U2 and Destiny’s Child during Games 1 and 4 of the hoops finals last week, Mr. Metcalf said similar “Weakest Link” insertions are being mulled for NBA telecasts next season. But he also stressed that it will only be considered on a “case-by-case” basis and is something that would take the approval of the NBC Sports division, which is headed by President Dick Ebersol.
Moreover, Mr. Metcalf emphasized that placing abbreviated entertainment series within the Olympics has been ruled out by both divisions of the network. “In Salt Lake City, the Winter Olympics [starting in February 2002], will be filled with plenty of showmanship, and it won’t be coming from us,” Mr. Metcalf noted.
NBC Sports is said by sources to be wary of overcommercializing the Winter 2002 Olympics, coming off of some criticism from TV critics and advertisers over the tape-delayed nature of the Summer 2000 Olympics it broadcast from Sydney, Australia, last September.
In the meantime, though, NBC’s “Weakest Link” experiment could have the other broadcast networks considering placing entertainment series, particularly game shows or reality series, within the half-time breaks of football and basketball telecasts. However, given that ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” is already scheduled for 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Mondays next season, it seems unlikely ABC would offer a truncated version within its “Monday Night Football” telecasts.
A source at ABC Entertainment said the idea of placing entertainment programming within sporting events had been broached in the past with “Millionaire” Executive Producer Michael Davies, but nothing has yet been formally decided on such a move.