ESPN, TNT Enjoying NBA's Ratings Revival

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ESPN and Turner Network Television have high expectations for a strong ratings finish to their respective 2003-04 National Basketball Association regular-season cable packages.

Despite an acute ratings drop for its Feb. 15 NBA All-Star Game telecast, Turner Network Television is expecting to continue its first-half ratings surge as the season winds down toward the playoffs, while ESPN is riding a 15% ratings lift going into the second half of its 2003-04 NBA schedule.

Through 34 games, TNT is averaging a 1.4 rating for Thursday-night doubleheader telecasts, up 27% over a 1.1 rating for the same number of games last year.

TNT expects to ride ratings momentum into the second half despite suffering a ratings rejection for its All-Star telecast: the game's performance dropped to a 6.2 rating from a 8.2 mark last year.

Turner Sports president David Levy expected a falloff from last year's double-overtime contest, which featured the final appearance of Michael Jordan. Nevertheless, he said the game was the second-most watched NBA game ever on cable, attracting 8.2 million viewers.

"We never anticipated it would do the same number with the Michael Jordan farewell party and the double-overtime game," he said. "This is basically where our expectations were."

In the second half, a favorable schedule featuring some of the league's top teams should help TNT match the 20% increase it experienced during the second half of last season, compared to that season's earlier games, Levy said. "We're excited about the back end of the schedule. There are some great stories there, so I anticipate a strong finish and a great playoff."

ESPN is averaging a 1.5 rating through 39 games, compared with a 1.3 mark after 40 games last season, ESPN vice president of research and sales development Artie Bulgrin said.

Along with an increase in household ratings, he said, ESPN posted increases among male viewers, including the 18-to-34 and 25-to-54 groups. "It appears that the audience is broadening, and there's much more tune-in than there was last year," he said.

Bulgrin pointed to the influx of new league stars such as Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James and Denver Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony, as well as greater viewer recognition of ESPN's NBA telecasts for the network's good ratings fortunes.

ESPN will add seven Sunday games to its Wednesday and Friday NBA lineups, which Bulgrin believes will further boost ratings for the network.

"We feel pretty good about holding on to these numbers going into the playoffs," he said.

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