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Stern: NBA Needs Tiers

10/31/2004 7:00 PM Eastern

As pro basketball prepares to tip off a new season, NBA TV's fifth year will feature more original programming and a firm commitment to providing operators with HDTV content.

But only with the continual growth of MSOs' digital sports tiers will the first pro league-based channel score a business slam dunk, according to National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern, who recently spoke with Multichannel News.

DEALS — ON TIERS

NBA TV has deals with Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications and Cablevision Systems Corp., as well as direct-broadcast satellite providers EchoStar Communications Corp. and DirecTV Inc., representing some 66 million households.

But the service is only currently available in approximately 10 million households — mostly on digital sports tiers. Future distribution growth ultimately rests with the expansion of sports tiers, which Stern said most operators are only getting around to launching now.

“The distribution verdict is not yet in, because we have to see what the uptake is on digital tiers,” Stern said. “We're feeling pretty good, but it's premature to make the final judgment.”

To boost the network's value to operators, Stern said the service will again televise up to 50 regular-season games in HD. In addition, the league is planning to turn NBA TV into a full-fledged HD channel by the 2005-06 season.

“We think that sports and high-def is inevitable,” he said.

But NBA TV does not plan to significantly enhance its current video-on-demand product beyond library features and games.

“We have a good VOD component,” he said. “If they think that broader carriage is justified and helped by enhanced VOD offerings, then we're all ears.”

Elsewhere, Stern said the network is buttressing its program roster. It will launch a Saturday-morning kids block featuring instructional, charity and community-based programming, as well as a potential animated show with video-game production company EA Sports.

Catering to the burgeoning fantasy-sports business, the network will premiere a daily afternoon preview show, NBA Talk, to complement its current 1 a.m. daily show NBA TV's Fantasy Hoops.

“It's a continued place where NBA fans can know that everything about their sport will be tried and aggregated,” he said.

Stern said he's “optimistic” about the long-term future of the league, even as a potential collective bargaining agreement battle looms when its contract with the NBA Players Association expires at the end of the 2004-05 season.

“I wouldn't minimize the risk [of a work stoppage], but we're pretty determined not to let that happen,” he said.

Turning his attention to cable, Stern said the launch of Denver-based Altitude Sports and Entertainment Network and the Charlotte-based Carolinas Sports Entertainment Network will bring greater exposure to the league's teams, as well as additional revenue to their coffers.

LOVES REGIONALS

“The extraordinary growth in regional sports networks and the new deals our teams are making have significantly increased dollars, which reaffirms the value of local sports,” Stern said.

“Nothing could be better from an NBA perspective than the launch of new regional sports networks — it means better coverage for our teams, increased revenues, more competition for programming and it drives everything in the right direction.”

Stern hopes national carriers ESPN and Turner Network Television will continue to see the strong ratings increases they've enjoyed in the first two years of the current six-year TV deal. Last season, each network posted a 17% increase in ratings for their respective regular-season games, compared to the 2002-03 campaign.

“A victory these days is keeping the ratings the same,” Stern said. “We have a good [television] schedule of games and our fans know where are games are, but it's hard. I think sports will remain the most erosion-resistant — not erosion-proof — programming on television.”

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