Friday, August 19, 2005
NHL Burning Questions
OLN-NHL venture could lead to competition for ESPN
Comcast, which owns hockey's new cable home, might be in the market for an all-sports network.
By John Niyo / The Detroit News
Burning questions about the NHL's new cable television deal:
Q: What the heck is the OLN?
A: Better get used to it: That's hockey's new home on the tube. The NHL is leaving ESPN for OLN -- formerly the Outdoor Life Network -- after completing a two-year deal with Comcast Corp. to be its new cable TV partner.
Late Wednesday, the league officially parted ways with ESPN, its broadcast partner since 1992. Even though the NHL and Comcast were busy Thursday touting their plan to "supercharge" what they promise will be an improved NHL product, the truth is it's a marriage of necessity, in many respects.
In May, with the NHL's labor situation still unresolved, ESPN took a pass on its $60 million option to broadcast the 2005-06 season. But even after Comcast swooped in with an offer that is worth $135 million for the next two seasons, with options to extend the deal through 2011, ESPN had the right to match. Instead it declined, citing the NHL's subpar ratings and the damage done by last season's lockout.
As George Bodenheimer, the president of ESPN and ABC Sports, put it, "No financial model even remotely supports the contract terms offered."
Q: So why did Comcast make the deal?
A: Many in the industry believe this is the first step in Comcast's move to create an all-sports network that would compete with ESPN. Just last year, Comcast actually tried to buy ESPN as part of a failed $66 billion bid for Walt Disney Co. Comcast also is reportedly trying to land network deals with the NFL -- targeting a Thursday-Saturday package beginning in 2006 -- and NASCAR.
Q: What about NBC? I thought it already bought the NHL rights?
A: NBC is the free-TV, over-the-air partner for the NHL, for which the network didn't have to pay any up-front rights fees. Instead, it's a revenue-sharing deal similar to the one NBC has with the Arena Football League.
But you won't see much hockey on NBC, seven regular-season games and fewer than a dozen postseason games. OLN will carry the bulk of the first three rounds of the playoffs, as well as Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
Q: OK, what does all this mean for fans in Detroit?
A: Well, that depends on your cable provider, at least for now.
Nationwide, OLN reaches some 64 million households, compared with 90 million for ESPN, though officials from Comcast and the NHL, which has incentive clauses built into the deal, expect that disparity to shrink.
Said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman: "My guess is that by having us, OLN is anticipating, as are we, subscriber growth."
Comcast has 1.4 million Michigan subscribers, with nearly two-thirds residing in Metro Detroit, according to a company representative. But in some areas, OLN is available only to those with Comcast's digital package. If and when that changes remains to be seen.
"In those places where we have to address any shortcomings in distribution, you can bet that, as of today, that job has started," OLN president Gavin Harvey promised Wednesday.
The same might be true for folks with other cable providers -- many Wide Open West subscribers won't find OLN on their channel guide -- but only if the demand is there. Remember, the NHL's ratings last season were minuscule: a 0.5 rating for ESPN games in 2003-04 equates to about 450,000 households, and ESPN2 managed barely half that many.
Q: What will NHL fans who don't get OLN be missing?
A: Plenty, come playoff time.
But the regular-season schedule won't be drastically different from the past. Wings fans will still get a steady diet of the home team, mostly on Fox Sports Net, and the NHL's Center Ice package remains unchanged. Anywhere from 60-80 NHL games will be televised nationally by OLN on Monday and Tuesday nights during the regular season, beginning with the Oct. 5 season opener that features the New York Rangers at the Philadelphia Flyers. (No surprise there: Comcast owns the Flyers franchise.)
Next season, expect OLN's Monday broadcast to be a stand-alone game on the schedule, similar to the NFL's "Monday Night Football." A half-hour wrap-up show -- similar to ESPN's "NHL 2Night" -- will follow each OLN game. On-air talent has yet to be announced, but you can expect to see familiar faces.
Also, as part of the deal, Comcast now must carry the NHL Network -- previously available only in Canada -- on its digital-tier subscriber packages. Games on OLN will be shown in high-definition TV, and Comcast plans to offer on-demand broadcasts and live computer streaming over the Internet.
You can reach John Niyo at firstname.lastname@example.org