Friday, January 26, 2007

The NBA on ABC: My Issues

True Hoop guest maestro Kelly Dwyer pointed to a two-part series on Sports Media Watch (Part I | Part II) about how ABC's poor coverage of the NBA has played its part in helping drive the ratings into the toilet.

SMW has had problems with these aspects of ABC's coverage, among other things:
-Technical style
-Al Michaels
-Broadcaster lineup inconsistency

It's a very good read in general - if anything, I feel comforted to know I'm not the only one who noticed things like ABC/ESPN's odd habit/fetish of cutting away to bouncing breasts in the stands after a good play in their first couple years.

That said, I'd like to note a few other major TV-related factors which I think have helped kill the ratings in the ABC years:

Regular Scheduling/Timeslots
Back in the '90s, you knew that if you tuned your television to NBC on a late Sunday afternoon from around the NFL Conference Championships through the end of the season, there would be an NBA game on. KNEW it.

In my mind, ABC really devastated the NBA in its first couple years by skipping weeks and jumping the timeslots around all over the place. It became hard enough for *hard-core* NBA fans to figure out when the games were on, much less casual fans.

Equally bad, they showed a preponderance of games in the 1 p.m. ET timeslot. It's always preferable to have later timeslots for live sports, to fully maximize the West Coast audience (NBC got to the point where they showed a lot of 5:30 ET games on Sunday). And it's especially ridiculous to have early timeslots for the NBA because, last time I checked, California was a pretty good NBA market, up and down the state.

Take a look at the ABC schedule from the 2003-04 season, its second year:
Some of the insanity of this schedule:
-There were only two (!) start times later than 10 a.m. on the West Coast between Jan. 17 and Apr. 4.
-Insult to injury, the Kings-Mavericks game (arguably the NBA's most entertaining two teams that season) merited a 10 a.m. local start time for Sacramento viewers on Jan. 25.
-Games were skipped every other week between Jan. 18 and Mar. 7.
-One of the weeks which was skipped was Feb. 1, Super Bowl Sunday - unconscionable! One of my fondest memories as a fan growing up was that SB Sunday would always start with a huge marquee NBA matchup.
-Doubleheaders were rare, as opposed to being common in the NBC days.

It was always odd to me that ABC, which was floundering in the ratings overall a few years ago, didn't embrace the potential for the elusive young male audience that the NBA offered. ESPN cut the deal with the NBA, and it was like ABC resented having to deal with it.

Thankfully, they have appeared to improve both of these aspects this season:
-No skipped weeks between Jan. 21 and the end of the season.
-Consistent 3:30 timeslots; consistent doubleheaders except for March, which is understandable because the NCAAs dominate.
-Would prefer to have this week's matchup - Suns-Cavs - on SB Sunday instead of Pistons-Cavs, but they've improved, so I won't complain.

Let me first note that NBC had no shame in the late 90s in showing the Bulls damn near every Sunday - they'd cycle through the main intriguing teams and players in the league vs. CHI.

Let's go back to 2003-04. That season, there were two overarching storylines that potentially appealed to the casual fan, in my mind:
1) Lakers superteam with GP/Mailman + soap opera with Kobe/Shaq
2) LeBron enters the league
Now take a look at that 2003-04 schedule again.
-Out of 12 weeks, the Lakers appeared 5 times. I know that seems high, but really, with so few draws in the league, they should have been shameless and aired L.A. about 9 times.
-And the fact that LeBron was only on once was somewhat mindboggling. I know that he was an unproven rookie, but all signs pointed to this guy being a potential torch-carrier, and it was worth establishing and exposing him. I don't understand how a LeBron-Kobe matchup didn't make it on there.

Once again, the matchups appear to have gotten better on the '06-07 slate.
That said, the teams still seem a little spread out. With so few national/casual draws these days, I'd have gone to the well with these matchups almost exclusively (based on where things stood in the offseason, when the schedule was set):
-heavy doses of LAL and PHO
-Kobe v LeBron
-Kobe v Shaq/D-Wade
-LeBron v D-Wade
-LeBron v Carmelo
-Yao v Shaq

One thing I should note as a negative for NBC is that I still haven't forgiven Dick Ebersol for airing 67-63 games between the Knicks and the Heat 12 times a year in the late '90s/early '00s. Those games set the NBA back decades, esp. with so much interesting young talent coming into the league at that time.

Playoffs Confusion
Again, regarding the Playoffs in the '90s, there was a certain simplicity for fans both casual and hard-core: If it was a weekend day, the Playoffs were on NBC; any other times, the games were on TNT, possibly TBS. Until about Game 3 of the Conference Finals, and then all games were on NBC. Like clockwork.

Now I - again, a huge fan - have largely no idea what Playoff games are on which networks when. I can deduce that they follow the regular season sked of ESPN on Wed/Fri and TNT on Thu, but beyond that I'm lost. Weekends are completely confusing, with games on ABC, ESPN, or TNT.

Must See TV
You can never underestimate the impact on the ratings that NBC got simply by running promos for each Sunday's games during its all-powerful Must See TV lineup on Thursday. That near-perfect promotion just can't be matched by anything.

Other Random Thoughts
-At a certain point, ABC's ratings are perhaps feeling the effects of bad karma stemming from not installing Marv to his rightful place as lead play-by-play man from day 1. Convicted felon, convicted shmelon.
But yes, don't worry, I am eternally thankful that the Al Michaels era is over.
-Music - I actually thought that Justin Timberlake was a pretty decent choice, and the Black-Eyed Peas weren't terrible, either. I think that those kind of artists with crossover appeal - Beyonce, Mariah Carey - fit pretty well. Now, Tom Petty? Not so much.

But, of course, they're no Tesh. "Roundball Rock" has not been adequately replaced, I grant you. That said, don't sleep on the NBA on CBS theme - it's still my favorite.


At 12:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

NBA on ABC and ESPN is awful. Seriously, unless the matchup is awesome, the only way I'm tuning in is if Bill Walton is calling the game.

On the other hand, TNT is awesome. I love Kenny/Charles/EJ, and I really like the announcers for the game. Marv Albert and Steve Kerr are excellent.

But mostly I want Bob Costas back to call NBA games!

At 3:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The original poster said that the NBA on CBS theme is still his favorite. I have to agree with him. Not only did CBS sound better in the '80's than ABC has or ever will now, CBS looked better too. I'd take Bill Feigenbaum's '80's CBS NBA graphics package over any of the graphics that ABC/ESPN did/will do with the NBA. I just think that ABC/ESPN is horrible all around-- graphics, music, coverage, everything.

At 8:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree, the coverage is horrible on ABC, I will only flip to see the score. Bad graphics, Mike torico announcing games. They seen to phase out the crowd noise to only here the poor commentating. the picture is not as clear as TNT (color etc.), bad overall. Go back to CBS or NBC please.


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