Hockey Day in America is a Clear Chance For NHL to Counter-Program Another Busy Sports Day
January 12, 2011 2 Comments
One of the main thing that the NHL gets continuous praise with regards to the Winter Classic is that it is a simple diversion from what American television audiences have had beaten into their head for decades: Watch. Meaningless. College. Football. It used to be you’d see hour after hour of terrible, uninspired football. It becomes especially depressing when you know how impassioned and exciting NCAA Football can be during the season (one can only assume that, like in the NHL, the players aren’t paid for the post-season) and it is really hard to keep your attention, particularly when you’ve been seeing bad bowl match-ups for two weeks by New Year’s Day.
There’s a basic concept in TV known a counter-programming. Put simply, counter-programming is putting something fresh and different against something that might be tired or on a down-turn. For example, other networks are loading up on programming to take on American Idol this season. Or in more vague terms, when all four major networks have dramas in a timeslot, one my choose to launch a block of comedies. For NBC, the Winter Classic is counter-programming to ABC and ESPN’s endless marathon of bowl-mania, and it works.
Seeing the success they’ve had on New Year’s Day, they now appear to be looking for another tentpole on what is another day filled up with sporting events that have seen better days. As we mentioned yesterday, NBC is planning six hours of coverage on what the league and USA Hockey have deemed “Hockey Day in America,” February 20th from 12-6PM ET. It’ll feature live footage from Millenium Park in Chicago, as well as regional (maybe doubleheader?) NHL action. In addition to that, VERSUS will be airing the Heritage Classic, outdoors from Calgary’s McMahon Stadium, at 6:00 PM ET, giving hockey fans a full, nine hours of marathon viewing. Putting all this hockey back-to-back is another stalwart programming concept, block programming.
What’s to compete against on February 20th? NASCAR and the NBA’s signature regular season events, the Daytona 500 (early in the day on FOX) and the NBA All-Star Game (in the evening on TNT). Both of these events have seen recent downturns in ratings. 2010’s edition of The Great American Race (which saw some delays) on FOX drew 13.3 million viewers, while miles ahead of any hockey game, the lowest for any Daytona 500 since 2000, and had a 7.7, the lowest ratings for the race since 1991. Meanwhile, the 2010 NBA All-Star game, while setting record attendance in person, tied an all-time low with a 3.8 rating and 6.3 million viewers.
Now, both of these events could see a spark in 2011, but the NHL is smart to bank on people maybe looking to take their viewing habits elsewhere on February 20th with day-long hockey coverage. Why not try and start a new tradition? People who are tired of racing might flip on the hockey, see that it’ll be on the rest of the day, and stick with it. Hopefully NBC and VERSUS will cross-promote, and maybe that viewer finds VERSUS (which can always use finding) for the Heritage Classic. Unlikely for the masses, but you never know on an individual level.
Right now, the NHL is about creating tentpole events. Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated called the United States a “big event nation”, and he’s not wrong. We like holding on to past notions of communal viewing and experiences. The NHL had so few “stop and look at us!” type events for many years, beyond the All-Star Game and the Playoffs. Now, they’ve developed the Winter Classic into a cult hit, and they’ll try to do something similar with Hockey Day in America in February, and a minor level with the All-Star Weekend later this month. If we string together events to keep the casual fan’s attention until the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they’ll get into the post-season tournament with more ferver than ever. Nothing wrong with that.