CTAM Live: Comcast SportsNet Courts Multiplatform Opportunities

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Riding the success of the National Basketball Association World Champion Boston Celtics, Comcast SportsNet New England vice president of marketing and development Nancy Larkin recently talked to Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the network’s upcoming marketing and programming efforts. An edited transcript follows:

Multichannel News: In the past year, Boston has been a very big market for sports, in part due to the world champion Celtics. How has the success of the Celtics changed the fortunes of the network?
Nancy Larkin: People answer my phone calls now (laughs). Our network started out airing Celtics games on Nov. 6, 1981, which was the Larry Bird era. At the time we were known as the Boston Celtics channel, but as the fate of the Celtics changed, it became a challenge for us.

Comcast had absolutely impeccable timing because they purchased the channel in July of last year. Right on the heels of that the Celtics made the big trades [with the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Garnett and the Seattle SuperSonics Ray Allen] to create the big three [with Celtics veteran Paul Pierce]. It couldn’t have been better — ratings went up 116% and it was such a storybook season. We really felt very relevant on the sports scene.

MCN: How have you been able to turn the success of the Celtics into a marketing benefit for the network? NL: Marketing follows content, and what I think the most significant thing that we’ve done is that we’ve expanded our content and the viewing experience for our customers. Every Celtics telecast is a HD telecast; we’ve added pre- and postgame telecasts for every single game, including the ones that are [carried nationally on TNT and ESPN].

The other thing that we’ve done in terms of shoulder programming is we introduced a magazine show called Celtics Now that covers the passion of the team. We’ve extended a lot of that content to our Web site digitally, and we’ve also launched VOD — we show replays of all the Celtics games on demand so fans can watch it on their schedule.

MCN: In an effort to court younger fans, the network will continue its FanCaster program this season. Talk to me about the program­.
NL: We are the only sports network in the country that does this, and it’s absolutely one of the best things we do. For every Celtics home game, we select a young person between 13 and 18 years old to appear on TV in front of potentially 4 million homes in New England to intro­duce the “Hero Among US” [the network’s community award recipient.]

When they are chosen, they get a behind the scenes tour of the production truck; they get to go into the press room to meet [Celtics announcers] Tommy [Heinsohn] and Mike [Gorman.] They also go down and stand on the parquet floor with all the players there and then videotape an introduction. Then they actually get to see a game.

While this may not seem like a big deal for those who are a bit jaded about such things, I will tell you it has changed the lives of some of these kids.

MCN: Looking ahead, how will you look to use alternative media­ platforms such as the Web to reach your viewers?
NL: This is no secret — the digital distribution rights for our games are being negotiated as we speak. Frankly, we’re waiting to see what will happen with those negotiations­.

When we talk to our programming guys, we have to change the lexicon: anything they do is not just television, but it has to live on different mediums — that’s the way of the world, and we have a huge advantage in that area.

We’re already producing original content for the Web. For example, we have a program called Sports Tonight, a twice daily live show. [Boston Red Sox pitcher] Jonathan Papelbon has been on our air before and unbeknownst to him we were able to get from his mother a high school video of him. We put it up on the Web site and it spread like wildfire … ESPN even picked it up.

We also look at multiplatform opportunities to reach viewers — we offer live chats during the game; we send out e-blasts with news and information; and we have a whole blogging setup online. It’s sort of a new and exciting world in that regard.

MCN: Looking toward 2009, what should we look forward to from the network?
NL: There will be changes in 2009, and for us we’re definitely committed to expanding our programming to solidifying our regional footprint with local content both on air and digitally. Depending on how the pieces fall you will definitely see an expanded, energized regional sports net that will compete very effectively in New England.

Click here for more CTAM Summit ’08 coverage.

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