Lazarus: NBC Sports Network Changes Will Be 'Done Well, Not Fast'

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While the new moniker for Versus becomes official on Jan. 2, NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus says changes for the service won't occur over night.

During a one-on-one interview at Sports Business Journal-Daily's Sports Media & Technology 2011 conference here Wednesday, Lazarus said the branding switch to NBC Sports Network will occur on Jan.2, when Bob Costas throws to the service following NBC's coverage of the NHL Winter Classic.

"Changes take a long time. We will do it well, not fast," he said," noting that teases will occur on- air on both NBC and Versus, and there will be a campaign around Thanksgiving to get the word out.

Although live, event programming is certainly key, Lazarus, who became group chairman after Dick Ebersol resigned in May, told the audience that the NBC Sports Network will showcase the already launched sports business program with CNBC and SportsTalk content that provide daily genre relevance for viewers.

He said the group would continue to compete to acquire product for NBC and NBC Sports Network, citing Major League Soccer and NFL Turning Point, as well as recent renewals with the National Hockey League and Olympics.

As for the London Games, Lazarus said there would be some 1,700 TV hours, with NBC, given the time difference across The Pond, continuing to feature packages of the biggest events in primetime. Lazarus reiterated that every event will be covered live -- whether via NBC Sports Network, CNBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, but not top-ranked cable network USA, which is not part of the Games' roster -- and/or on digital platforms.

He noted that rights for NASCAR, the NFL and Major League Baseball, "in the not too distant future," will be up for bid. He also expects NBC Sports Group to be engaged in the next rounds of negotiations for the "muddled world of college sports," alhough he mentioned that many of those rights are currently locked up.

Asked about the prospective NFL Thursday night package, which interviewer Abe Madkour, executive editor of SBJ and SBD, billed as "a game-changer," Lazarus quipped, "It sure would be helpful. The league said [negotiations] would take place sometime next year and we anticipate being in that dialog."

Lazarus believes that NBC's current position with the pro football league is strong. "I think we've proven to be a good steward of the brand with Sunday Night Football. We produce it as the biggest game of the week. The ratings have been successful, advertisers are pleased and we have good relations with the teams," he said. "I think the fans sense that in the stadiums, as well as the viewers at home. We'd like to work with the league, when appropriate. to have more of their product."

Adding it all up, Lazarus said NBC Sports Network will build over time as it forges ahead, working daypart by daypart. "You cannot get an audience to trust you if you're all over the place," he said, noting that viewers currently don't know what the service stands for. "We want sports fans to know what to expect when they come to one of our properties. They should expect quality production, quality storytelling and talent who know their business and can articulate it well."

Lazarus said the attendant initiatives are designed not only with viewers in mind, but to convince advertisers and distributors that NBC Sports Network is also worthy of their trust.

"This a function of time. We have great company support [from parent Comcast], a great team of people, [president of programming NBC Sports and Versus] Jon Miller,[head NBC Sports Agency, CMO, NBCUniversal Television Group] John Miller, [execuitve producer NBC Sports and Versus] Sam Flood and  [president Versus and SportsNet] Jon Litner," he said. "We're going to take some risks. TV shows don't always work, but we're not going to give up too early."