When it comes to playoff series, TV executives should be careful what they wish for.
The prevailing wisdom says the longer the series, the higher the ratings. After all, when a series reaches Game 6 or better still Game 7, a more national base of fans are likely to tune in.
But while potential upsets draws casual viewers, if the chalk is ultimately erased that can hurt a network’s prospects in the subsequent rounds.
Take ESPN’s Saturday coverage of the Chicago Bulls upset of the Boston Celtics, which was one of four NBA series openers that went to the road team this past weekend.
Derrick Rose tied Kareem Abdul Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) for the most points by a rookie in an NBA playoff debut with 36. And when Paul Pierce missed the second of two free throws with 2.2 seconds left, after an absolutely horrendous foul by Joaquin Noah (he may as well have hit the C with one of his father’s tennis racquets) the Bulls pushed Boston into OT, where they pulled the upset when Ray Allen ended his night 1-12 from the floor.
In the short run, that will stoke ratings for the series. Unless, of course, Boston can’t regroup without the Big Ticket Kevin Garnett and the young Bulls gore the Cs quickly. Although that’s unlikely, Boston will ultimately fail to defend its NBA title without KG, perhaps in the next round, against the Orlando Magic and its superman Dwight Howard.
Well, that’s provided that squad can subdue Brian Roberts’ Philadelphia 76ers, which rallied from an 18-point deficit to leave Stan Van Gundy apoplectic on the sideline in the first game of that matchup
Officials at TNT, which this year has exclusive coverage of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, have to be hoping for a strong second-round match between Orlando and the Celtics, with Boston taking the Magic’s measure as a lead-in to a confrontation with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But without KG, that would seem a very tall order. While Boston-Los Angeles Lakers has been the premiere rivalry in the league’s history over the decades, as exemplified by strong ratings in the 2008 championship round, ABC and David Stern could do far worse than a Finals featuring the game’s best player Kobe Bryant and his Air apparent, LeBron James.
On the ice, Comcast SportsNet, which enjoyed a strong NHL Nielsen season with its regional services covering the Philadelphia Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks, Washington Capitals and San Jose Sharks, may like the early playoff ratings returns. However, only Chicago, at this writing, was in the driver’s seat in its opening round series. Indeed, the Sharks, which had the league’s best record, and the Capitals, with the league’s most intriguing player Alexander Ovechkin, both lost their first two games at home.
Where series losses by the three trailing CSN-covered clubs would leave national Comcast-owned sports carrier Versus in the next round is hard to tell. Versus enjoyed cable’s best Nielsens with the NHL playoffs since 2002 last season, with a Stanley Cup Final featuring Sid “The Kid” Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Detroit Red Wings.
Short of losing that Western Conference perennial (if the ratings gods were beneficent, they would forbade those Nielsen no-counts from Calgary or Vancouver from advancing), Versus also would likely do fine with a Cup contest that featured the Blackhawks and the nation’s No. 2 DMA in Chicago.
In the East, Boston had the NHL’s second-best record and brings a large market audience, who would pair watching the Bruins with the Bosox this spring, when the Celtics are sent packing. New York, Philly and Pittsburgh are preferable to New Jersey, Carolina, Washington and dare, I say, Les Habitants. Tradition aside, there’s also something about Montreal and non-measured ratings in the States.