Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Heidi Redux

If the infamous "Heidi" game between the Jets and Raiders taught network sports programmers nothing else it's that they should seldom, if ever, cut away from live events. Ever since that game in 1968 networks have usually stayed with the action even when it runs overtime. (Remember Dan Rather walking off the set of the CBS Evening News in 1987 because the U.S. Open tennis finals went too long?)

But NBC apparently has not learned the lesson. It was NBC that cut away from the end of the Jets-Raiders in 1968, and this past weekend the network created a mini-controversy by cutting away from the end of an NHL playoff game. It wasn't just that NBC cut away, but it did so right before the Ottawa-Buffalo overtime started. And the switch was made to allow NBC to show not just the Preakness horse race, but hours of pre-race coverage. Hockey viewers were told the rest of the game could be seen on the Versus cable network.

Naturally, hockey fans were outraged and just as naturally NBC defended its decision. NBC gets into a lot of talk about "contractual obligations," but don't be fooled. If the U.S. Open golf tournament went an extra 18 holes and Tiger Woods was playing NBC would figure out a way to keep it on the air. No matter what NBC says this decision was all about the bottom line. It's math even a network executive can figure out--hockey draws about a million-plus viewers while horse racing gets five million-plus.

The numbers don't always add up the way people want (especially us hockey fans), but it's an instructive lesson in what really drives sports media, especially in today's marketplace. If networks can make more money by taking your favorite sport off the air, then as the old baseball saying goes, "kiss it goodbye!"


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