In advance of last week’s CTAM Summit ’08, Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead caught up with veteran NESN executive and current network president Sean McGrail to talk about the network’s evolution from a Boston Red Sox-heavy, events-only channel to a broad-based content service offering everything from sports reality shows to comedy. An edited transcript follows:
MCN: From your perspective, how much has the regional sports business changed over the years?
Sean McGrail: I think it’s very different. RSNs have really changed over the years from event-only networks to ones that are really well rounded staples inside most consumers’ television day. Now, as opposed to 10 years ago, NESN functions like any national network, simply on a regional scale. We produce our own content, we monetize it over our subscriber and ad base. NESN enjoys sampling on par with the local broadcast networks, so the growth of the network has allowed us to compete directly with local and national networks for advertising dollars.
MCN: Has the advertising market improved for regional sports networks in the past 10 years?
SM: I think there’s a couple of parts to that. Certainly from a ratings perspective, the answer is yes. For instance, last year NESN won in primetime in the market something like 107 times, which is extraordinary. With that, we’re able to produce a lot of secondary content now. We used to be an event-only network, but now we’re creating meaningful content that informs and entertains our fans.
A few yeas ago we launched a new unit called ONE [Original NESN Entertainment] and recently it just finished shooting a 12-part comedy series, NESN’s Comedy All-Stars. They also just finished shooting a second season of Sox Appeal, our reality dating show, which highlights three speed dates taking place during a game at Fenway Park.
We’re continually looking for new and entertaining programming to appeal to our audience and obviously to our advertisers. Clearly, the era coming is going to be a challenging one for advertisers — a lot of the core advertisers are experiencing financial difficulty. We are an opportunity for those companies to partner with NESN and achieve those advertising objectives.
Sports is really DVR-proof and appointment television, has really high viewer interest, and has incredibly high viewer engagement, so our fans are emotionally involved in the product. So our advertisers will have ample opportunities for our advertisers to partner with the [National Hockey League’s Boston] Bruins and the Red Sox, not only on a traditional spot basis but to embed them uniquely into game features and make them part of the telecast.
MCN: As an independent, how have you been able to take advantage of alternative distribution platforms such as broadband and VOD?
SM: I think all of us in the business are trying to figure that out. We’re always looking for ways to exploit alternative platforms, and very similar to all other networks, expansion into new media is critical to the network.
I think from our perspective, RSNs are uniquely positioned to exploit this opportunity, including streaming professional sports telecasts. We’re already producing the telecasts in house and we have very strong existing relationships with the distributors who all have high-speed data products.
In order to exploit those rights fully and protect the team’s existing revenue streams, RSNs will be an ideal partner to help figure out how to distribute those telecasts.
MCN: It certainly doesn’t hurt your position to have the popular Red Sox as part of your portfolio.
SM: No it doesn’t. We’ve been incredibly fortunate. The Red Sox for the last four years have had double-digit ratings performances — I think we finished No. 1 in all of baseball five years running, which is remarkable.
The Bruins are also such a core franchise in this market. We’re in a great position in that 240 nights a year we have an appointment television experience. And of course we have a lot of programming created prior to and after those events to keep our audience engaged all night long.
I think that has allowed us to compete and drive the business in a different direction and become much more focused on advertising sales. I think we’re poised to provide content that creates a compelling 12-month a year service.
I think we’ve branched out much more so into new areas of entertainment programming that borders the line between sports and sports entertainment, which has been very successful for us. We’re producing thousands of hours of original content every single year. We’re probably a little more content driven because we’re an independent and we have to produce all of our own shows.