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NBA TV Signs First Three MSOs

Sep 29, 2003  •  Post A Comment

NBA TV, a basketball-themed network owned and operated by the National Basketball Association, is expected to announce today that it has signed its first three cable operators to distribution deals. The network already has carriage deals with satellite operators DirecTV and EchoStar Communications.
The arrangements with Cablevision Systems, Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable will nearly double to 45 million the number of households able to access the channel, which features basketball games as well as other programming tied to both the sport and the lifestyle surrounding the sport.
Though terms of each cable distribution agreement were not disclosed, NBA officials said the channel will be part of the operators’ digital offerings. It is up to each operator to decide whether to package the channel as a standard digital channel or as part of some kind of tier.
“Here we have a high-quality, branded programming network associated with a sports league that has behind it not only all of the assets available to the NBA but also a library of NBA entertainment, production capacity and access that being part of the league affords us,” said Ed Desser, president of NBA New Media and Strategic Initiatives, which runs the network.
Besides attracting loyal basketball fans, Mr. Desser is betting the network’s plan to telecast 50 of nearly 100 scheduled games in high definition will help attract audiences to the channel, which currently is not tracked by Nielsen.
Launched five years ago as a companion channel to the NBA League Pass pay-TV service, NBA TV was revamped a year ago, adding original programming and game coverage. It has been designed to serve as a link between network basketball coverage and the NBA League Pass service and is aimed at basketball fans who crave more hoops coverage than they might find on TNT, ESPN and ABC but aren’t quite ready to step up to NBA League Pass, which can sell for $99 per season and offers access to up to 40 games a week.
However, questions remain as to whether the channel is ready for the big leagues. Among the challenges facing the network is the proliferation of outlets that already show basketball games. Besides the Turner channels and ABC/ESPN, several regional sports networks telecast games. Some in the sports television business have reservations about whether NBA TV game coverage will generate audiences.
Mr. Desser responds to the charge that NBA TV is entering an already crowded space by pointing out that the network’s link to the league will provide an edge in the kind of coverage available on the channel. “We represent a unique and differentiated offering that an ESPN or regional sports network might not,” he said. “We represent all things that are basketball.”
The NBA also is facing some long odds with respect to ratings. Without a Michael Jordan-like player to attract viewers these days, and with sexual assault charges confronting Kobe Bryant-who was once seen as a likely candidate to achieve NBA ambassador status-casual fans seem to be turning elsewhere. Indeed, NBC, a longtime broadcaster of basketball, dropped its coverage in 2002, citing a 37 percent decline in ratings over the life of its most recent four-year contract. And this year’s NBA Finals between New Jersey and San Antonio produced the lowest ratings for NBA Finals in Nielsen history.
For his part, Mr. Desser is confident that NBA TV has a following that will only get bigger. “If you think about it from the fans’ standpoint, people no longer design their schedule around what is available on TV,” he said. “People want what they want when they want it.” He added that the NBA’s deals with TNT, ESPN and ABC cover games on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, leaving the rest of the week ripe for attracting fans interested in viewing games.