Even if It’s Just Two Games, NBC Shuts GameCenter/Center Ice Subscribers Out of Hockey Day

Here’s the thing: I’m well aware that streaming on websites and on tablets will be more what we are accustomed to in the future. It’s coming, if not in the immediate future, than in five to ten years. Streaming hockey games online is going to change the landscape of media rights deals by the time the NHL is renegotiating it’s television contract in the early 2020’s, and perhaps even by the time the NBA renegotiates their deal in 2015. Companies like Google and Apple have made hints about bidding for sports rights, including the NFL.

I also understand that fans of other sport have it much worse. The NFL has given DIRECTV a monopoly over all the cable companies, preventing cable customers from seeing their teams if they live outside the regional broadcast territory. Major League Baseball fans have cried foul for years that FOX broadcasts are not available on the MLB streaming app, or on the Extra Innings package. FOX will air as many as 5-6 regional games a week during the summer, and if you don’t live in the broadcast territory of the game you want to see, you will not be allowed to watch it.

So let’s enter this discussion with these two caveats accepted: internet/tablet streaming of sporting events is going to be more common as we get further along in this decade and into the coming years, and other sports fans have it a lot worse than hockey fans do when it comes to watching out of market games.

But the fact that NBC prevented Center Ice and GameCenter Live subscribers, who pay hundreds of dollars a year to see all the games, by only allowing out-of-market games to air on their NBCSports.com streaming service – which was very suspect for many viewers – is nonsense. How can it be Hockey Day in America if all the games are available on television in Canada (via NHL Network, TSN2 and Center Ice) but not in America? Total bunk.

It’s hard to think that the NHL really wanted this. The NHL tends to be the most progressive league when it comes to getting it’s content to anyone who’s willing to watch it. Game highlights (both league-sanctioned and fan made) are available all over YouTube. The league is easily the most web savvy, and on trade deadline day will stream over 10 hours of coverage on NHL.com just in case the folks without NHL Network can’t see it. So, why would they agree to do this?

The whole thing seems like it has been made to help promote NBC’s various web ventures, like the very good Pro Hockey Talk, whose writers held a Q&A livechat to accompany the streaming, among other various bells and whistles (starcams were available for each game). I’ll have more on NBC’s coverage, which I mostly found quite good, tomorrow. But what happened today is unacceptable.

Say you’re a Penguins fan who lives in Cleveland, Ohio. Now, Cleveland is two hours away from Pittsburgh, but you’re out of the viewing territory. The NBC station, in it’s infinite wisdom, has been chosen to air Sharks/Red Wings. No problem, you’re used to not seeing the Pens on TV, that’s why you spent $150 on Center Ice or GameCenter Live. You flip over to Center Ice, or click over to GameCenter. The game isn’t available there. Well, that sucks. Then, you find out that NBCSports.com is streaming the game. Well, I guess it’s not great that my money’s going to waste here, but at least I can still see it. But the stream is choppy and kept rebuffering (a complaint many people had yesterday), and you kind of just want to give up on the whole thing.

Funny or not, this is very likely the experience of many people (if Twitter can be believed) yesterday. Now, one day a year, it’s hard to take all of this seriously for people who aren’t able to see the game of their favorite team. But how much further will this go? Will NBC add more regional games next year? Would NBC ever consider regionalizing Stanley Cup Playoff games again? Will NHL Center Ice/GameCenter in the US essentially be shut out with the net television deal putting every game on “national” television (including the premium channel NHL Network)? It’s a minor issue for now, but it makes you wonder how far NBC will take this.

What could have been done to prevent this? Well, that’s quite simple, compared to all this. NBC could have just, you know, allowed the games to air on Center Ice or GameCenter. Allowing regional games to air on Center Ice was the standard practice during the ABC (1999-2004) and NBC (2005-06) regionalizing years. They could have allowed the streams to go live on NHL.com, similar to how the network and league share the streams of star-cams during Game of the Week coverage.

NBC could’ve thought a little bit outside the box too. They could’ve aired the games on their future playoff overload channels, NBC Sports Network, CNBC and NHL Network. CNBC had very little going on, NBC Sports Network was airing a lacrosse tournament, and NHL Network was running a special on Mike Modano. Hardly stuff that couldn’t be run instead of live hockey. Hockey Day in America could be an event similar to the NCAA Basketball Tournament, with multiple networks running games. I assume this would be the situation we’ll get in the playoffs, it would have been nice to see it tried out today.

However, NBC didn’t do this, and held out the games for the benefit of drawing traffic to NBCSports.com. Hard to blame them for doing this, unless you’re someone who spends hundreds of dollars on streaming services that promise you, with the exception of nationally televised contests on NBC, NBC Sports Network and NHL Network, every game for your money. Those people felt let down by the league and the network today, and NBC should make every effort to rectify their mistake by the time Hockey Day rolls around next year. The NHL should listen to the complaints of their customers and demand it. The future is coming, but we’re just not quite there yet. NBC Sports turned the clock a little too far forward today.

6 Responses to Even if It’s Just Two Games, NBC Shuts GameCenter/Center Ice Subscribers Out of Hockey Day

  1. chrisreber says:

    all 3 games looked good on nbcsports.com here in Philly. I’m anxious to hear more about what you think of a TSN broadcast team going to Buffalo. Gord Miller did a good job of mentioning american-bred players but a few times he lost me with references to CHL teams.

  2. paranoidpuck says:

    Your Pens/Cleveland hypothetical doesn’t work. Eastern Ohio is in the Pens TV territory. A fan in Cleveland can’t watch the Pens on CI or GCL. If you don’t get Root (and most of Ohio doesn’t) you’re screwed. That does prove one thing – NBC made some very odd regional choices. Much of the Pens viewing territory didn’t even receive the game on their local affiliate. I don’t think you would ever see that in the NFL or MLB. I know the Pens twitter feeds were blowing up with angry fans from WV to OH. In the end, it was probably best they missed out.

    I do find it interesting that you’re backtracking from many of your earlier Tweets. You wholeheartedly defended NBC until you realized how many fans were royally upset about this and that the stream quality sucked.

    The NHL isn’t MLB. It needs to cater to its small but loyal fan base. I don’t wanna watch a game in my office on my 24 inch monitor when I’m paying for CI. I wanna watch the game with my family on the couch on my big screen. Alienating the small group of fans the NHL has isn’t very smart especially since NBC’s regional games were formerly ALWAYS shown on CI. I get what NBC was trying to do but it was a lousy idea. NHL fans are in the habit of being able to see all of the games on TV.

    • nosferatu says:

      The past few years, when I was living in NE Ohio, I was able to see the Penguins’ games on Center Ice, thankfully–but when it came to the playoffs, it was like a slap in the face to find Versus blacked out for the first couple rounds of Penguins games.

      The NHL may be progressive in some aspects of new media, but their blackout policy is just about as stupid as other professional sports’.

  3. Jason says:

    NBC Sports Net ratings slow out of the gate

    By John Ourand, Staff Writer

    Published February 20, 2012

    The first edition of NBC Sports Network’s “Costas Tonight” was exactly what the network’s executives wanted: NBC Sports’ biggest on-air star, Bob Costas, interviewing a who’s-who list of top sports personalities from the Super Bowl.
    Only 108,000 viewers watched it live.

    One of the first shows to appear on the newly rebranded channel was a documentary called “Cold War on Ice.” Again, it was exactly the type of show NBC Sports covets for its all-sports cable channel: a high-quality documentary from one of the best producers in the business, former HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg.

    “Costas Tonight” debuted from the Super Bowl with high-profile guests but drew modest numbers.
    Photo by: BEN COHEN / NBC
    It drew only 167,000 viewers for its Jan. 2 premiere.

    To put these numbers in perspective, the least viewed show on ESPN last month still drew 108,000 viewers: a repeat episode of “World Series of Poker” that ran opposite the thrilling ending of the Giants-49ers NFC Championship game on Saturday, Jan. 22 (9:30-10 p.m.).

    A month into NBC Sports Network’s rebrand, and more than a year after the Peacock’s sports division took over Versus, the channel has seen viewership levels drop considerably.

    Despite heavy promotion on the NBC broadcast network and a focus on higher-quality shows, viewership for NBC Sports Network is down 21 percent on a total-day basis from January 2011 to January 2012. In January 2011, Versus averaged 78,000 viewers. In January 2012, the first month of NBC Sports Network, that figure dropped to 62,000.

    “We knew coming into this that if we were going to change this network and create, basically, a new sports network from scratch, we’re going to have some short-term issues ratings-wise,” said Jon Miller, president of programming at NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. “But understand at the end of the day, it’s a long race. And slow-and-steady wins it.”

    What makes the ratings drop so surprising is the fact that the channel’s live event programming has performed well over the past year. The channel’s NHL telecasts are up 7 percent so far this season to average 333,000 viewers per game. IndyCar viewership for the 2011 season was up 11 percent with an average of 402,000 viewers per race.

    In fact, NBC Sports says the channel’s overall prime-time viewership for the year ending Jan. 28, 2012, is up 5 percent compared with the previous year. That increase comes on the back of its live events.

    So the live-event strategy seems to be working, a direction spearheaded by new NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus. But it is NBC Sports Network’s new higher-quality shows that have not found an audience yet. In fact, its new shows are pulling in lower audiences than programming from Versus, which was much cheaper to produce.

    For example, the channel’s daily news show, “NBC SportsTalk,” has averaged 27,000 viewers since it launched in September. By comparison, Versus’ much-mocked daily news show “The Daily Line” nearly doubled that audience, averaging 53,000 viewers during its run.

    NBC Sports Network’s much-praised show “NFL Turning Point” averaged 105,000 viewers last season. That’s roughly the same number of viewers who tuned into Versus’ widely panned NFL-themed shows “Sports Jobs with Junior Seau” (101,000 viewers) and “The T.Ocho Show” (100,000 viewers).

    The low TV numbers are being closely monitored in sports TV circles, where rival networks, leagues, media buyers and cable operators are keeping close tabs on the five-year programming plan that Lazarus put into place earlier this year coinciding with the channel’s rebrand. To that end, NBC Sports held an exclusive invite-only “upfront” event for about 250 guests in Indianapolis on the Saturday before the Super Bowl to lay out the NBC Sports Group’s vision. The event attracted elite sports industry executives, including advertisers, media buyers and league commissioners like the NHL’s Gary Bettman and MLS’s Don Garber, as well as IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard.

    After taking over as head of Versus’ programming, Miller canceled several shows, including “Sports Jobs with Junior Seau” and “The T.Ocho Show.” He called them off-brand and said it was hard to get advertisers to support them.

    Miller pointed to “Costas Tonight” as the type of high-quality show for which he wants NBC Sports Network to be known. Despite the low viewership of its premiere episode, NBC signed Chevrolet to a significant sponsorship around the show.

    “We had a lot of what I call empty rating points on our air,” Miller said. “That means there are programs that delivered big audiences, but you couldn’t monetize them. You couldn’t sell them.”

    Miller pointed to the UFC as an example of an off-brand show that NBC had trouble getting advertisers to support.

    The UFC, though, also illustrates the troubles NBC Sports Network is having with TV ratings. In January 2011, UFC programming averaged 124,000 viewers on Versus, a number that doubled the channel’s total day average at the time. The network’s viewership took a hit when it lost UFC programming to Fox in August.

    Ad sales executives who spoke to SportsBusiness Journal on condition of anonymity because they do business with NBC said they want NBC Sports Network to succeed and become a competitor with ESPN, but they said the early low viewership is a concern.

    Another challenge NBC Sports Network faces comes with outdoors programming. In January, seven of the 10 most viewed shows on NBC Sports Network were from the outdoors genre — shows like “NAPA’s North to Alaska” and “Bill Dance Outdoors.” This type of programming owes its roots to the historical foundation of the network, which launched in 1997 as the Outdoor Life Network. NBC executives have made no secret of the fact that they want to de-emphasize that programming genre, which, in turn, means de-emphasizing some of the channel’s most viewed, and most profitable, programming.

    “Outdoor programming is a challenge for us,” Miller said. “It’s been in the fabric of the channel since it was OLN and Versus. We think there’s a place for it on NBC Sports Network, but certainly not at the level that it’s been.”

    Miller says he plans to be patient with his channel’s new shows, saying that it takes time for viewers to find the channel. He’s more focused on acquiring rights to live events, which he said is the surest way for the network to grow. In the past month, NBC Sports has made relatively small acquisitions for the Breeders’ Cup and the Colonial Athletic Association conference. The channel will start its relationship with Major League Soccer next month. It expects to be aggressive as the rights to Major League Baseball, NASCAR and the Big East Conference are negotiated later this year.

    “You grow by acquisition. You grow by bringing on more strong properties,” Miller said. “We’ve shown that we’re willing to step up to the plate and take a big swing.”

    Executives at the leagues, however, told SportsBusiness Journal that the channel’s low ratings swing the negotiating advantage toward the leagues. “I hesitate to put it this way, but we know that they need us more than we need them,” one said.

    In other areas, NBC Sports Network has seen some gains. Its distribution increased by 1 million homes in the past 12 months to 76.3 million homes, according to Nielsen. Cable operators pay an average of about 31 cents per subscriber per month for the channel, according to figures from SNL Kagan.

    Miller is confident that the channel will start to see ratings gains. NBC-owned Golf Channel, for example, has seen its total day audience increase by 1 percent from January 2011 to January 2012 due, in large part, to being closely tied with NBC branding over the past year.

    “We’ve done two things,” Miller said. “We’ve probably turned off that audience that was watching us. They’re going someplace else to get their mixed martial arts and programming like that. Now it’s incumbent upon us to start to build the audience up from scratch. Every day, we’re starting to see little victories that get us there.”

    The Numbers One Year In:
    An average of 62,000 viewers were tuned in to NBC Sports Network at any given time last month, down 20.5 percent from January 2011.
    Ranked by average viewership, January 2012
    Network Jan. 2012 Jan. 2011 Change
    ESPN 1,365,000 1,490,000 -8.4%
    ESPN2 330,000 365,000 -9.6%
    Speed 142,000 142,000 0.0%
    NFL Network 126,000 112,000 +12.5%
    NBA TV 88,000 51,000 +72.5%
    Golf Channel 81,000 80,000 +1.3%
    ESPNews 74,000 63,000 +17.0%
    NBC Sports Network 62,000 78,000 -20.5%
    Fox Soccer 30,000 31,000 -3.0%
    MLB Network 19,000 15,000 +26.7%
    Fuel TV* 17,000 N/A N/A
    *Fuel TV did not become Nielsen rated until April 2011.
    Note: Figures not available for cable networks that do not subscribe to daily Nielsen ratings, including ESPNU, ESPN Classic, NHL Network, Universal Sports, Tennis Channel, Fox College Sports, Big Ten Network, Longhorn Network and CBS Sports Network.

    NHL games 298,000
    NAPA’s North to Alaska 120,000
    NHL Live (postgame) 110,000
    City Limits Fishing 93,000
    Quest For The One 91,000

    NFL Turning Point 105,000
    NBC Sports Talk 27,000
    Sports Jobs with Junior Seau 101,000
    The T.Ocho Show 100,000
    The Daily Line 53,000
    Source: SportsBusiness Daily analysis of Nielsen data

  4. Robert says:

    You said this.
    “But the fact that NBC prevented Center Ice and GameCenter Live subscribers, who pay hundreds of dollars a year to see all the games, by only allowing out-of-market games to air on their NBCSports.com streaming service – which was very suspect for many viewers – is nonsense. How can it be Hockey Day in America if all the games are available on television in Canada (via NHL Network, TSN2 and Center Ice) but not in America? Total bunk.”

    I agree and the reverse happens in Canada. The CBC prevents Centre Ice from showing the other HNIC games happening at the same time. Yet they are all available on television in the USA via NHL Network and Centre Ice.

    • Ryan says:

      But if you live in Canada and have any sort of digital cable or satellite package, you’ll be getting CBC feeds from across the country. (Some regular, non-digital cable systems even do this, I spent most of 2010 in a city with CBC Winnipeg on channel 2 and CBC Montreal on channel 81.)

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