The Critical 'I'

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Tuesday, September 02, 2003

NBC GETTING (BACK) IN THE BIG-LEAGUE GAME
The big news concerning NBC today was its success in locking up exclusive negotiating rights toward the acquisition of the long-sought-after Vivendi Universal Entertainment (basically, all of Vivendi's North American media assets), beating out the Edgar Bronfman group. The deal, expected to go through by the end of September, finally will put NBC on similar footing, and advantage, as the other networks, as it will have direct Hollywood studio connections and distribution outlets. Here's a look at some of what NBC will buy off of Vivendi; doubtless the appropriate properties will soon be removed from Vivendi's page and transferred over to General Electric's, NBC's parent corporation.

So much for the big news. There is another piece of NBC-related news from today that, while easily overshadowed by the VUE acquisition, could be almost as significant in impact for the network's near-future prospects. Plus, it's sports-related, which makes it of special interest to me.

That news is an AdAge report that NBC is looking to re-enter the world of major pro sports broadcasting, with two of the major sports leagues suggesting that they've been contacted by the network for preliminary talks. As the article suggests, it's not too much of a stretch to assume that the NHL, with its ABC/ESPN broadcast deal set to expire at the end of the upcoming 2003-04 season, is one of those leagues. The NFL, with its broadcast deal expiring in 2005, is probably the other; MLB will be up for a new deal in 2006, while the NBA is out of consideration as it's just started a deal that runs until 2009.

Is all this activity around NBC related? Sure is. At first glance, it might appear that buying VUE would take up enough money and resources to preclude paying for media rights to sports programming. However, the timing here is very doable: Assuming the Vivendi deal gets wrapped up by the end of this year, NBC is freed up to go after hockey and/or football when their respective deals come up for bid. In fact, once the new media properties are absorbed, it only makes it more likely that NBC will go hard after sports, as it represents valuable and unique content that can drive their entire programming stable.

Frankly, this news confirms a suspicion I've had for some time. The absence of major sports on NBC for the last couple of years has been conspicuous. The "small ball" stuff (Arena Football and the defunct XFL) has really been more of an embarrassment for the network, really highlighting what it didn't have in the way of sports. The Olympics was a coup, but very much a one-shot event, nothing as sustaining as a regular-season schedule that you can build around. Combine this with the end of the NHL's deal, and ABC/ESPN's crowded sports schedule (all four major pro leagues on their channels, as they're so proud of pointing out), it makes "the NHL on NBC" almost a given.

The only question is whether ABC/ESPN feels it's worth it to keep the four-sport package intact; I'm betting they won't. Hockey's getting short-shrifted right now; there's no point getting into a bidding war for a sport that likely will get even less exposure among the Disney-owned networks. So I'm thinking this coming season will be the last for the NHL on ESPN and company.

The obvious disadvantage for the NHL going to NBC is the present lack of cable outlets; it's unlikely that CNBC, MSNBC or (just imagine!) Bravo will become the home of cable NHL broadcasts. But here comes the trick: Part of the VUE acquisition will include Universal Television Group, which includes USA Network. That's looking like the future place for the bulk of NHL games to me.

Big things afoot. The next couple of years of all this should be entertaining to watch.