For a season that was in serious jeopardy, the 2011-12 NBA campaign turned out to be a very strong one with the Nielsens.
Despite the lockout lopping off 16 games from the standard 82-contest schedule and pushing back the season's tipoff to Christmas, the national carriers netted a host of ratings records.
TNT scored the highest-rated and most-watched campaign in its more than quarter century covering the league, while in-house service NBA TV continued its ascent with game coverage and flanking programming. ABC enjoyed the best of its 10 years with the pro basketball league and the top marks for a broadcaster since 1999 -- the last time an NBA season was cut short by labor woes. Only ESPN failed to move ahead for the full season, but the worldwide leader matched its record-setting performance from the 2010-11 campaign.
"There was the Chris Paul trade to the Clippers, and the Christmas start. There was Ricky Rubio and then the emergence of Jeremy Lin," said NBA Digital general manager Christina Miller. "All those built on top of last season's momentum, so there were new storylines coming off what was a very strong 2010-11 season."
Could the lockout actually have helped? "I'm certainly not going to go as far as to say that," said ESPN vice president of programming and acquisitions Leah LaLaPlaca. "But the NBA was coming off such a strong year and there was no waning of interest from last season into the condensed season."
ABC averaged a 3.3 U.S. household rating, 3.83 million households and 5.4 million viewers for its 15 NBA games during the labor-shortened season, according to Nielsen. Measured against the 2010-11 season, ABC was up 10% in rating from a 3.0, 9% in households from 3.52 million and 6% from an audience of 5.11 million.
La Placa said "we were very fortunate with the ABC schedule. We had the Bulls, Heat, Lakers Clippers and caught the Knicks with Linsanity."
ESPN, over 73 games, averaged a 1.5 cable rating, which was up 7% from a 1.4 for the Christmas-to-date period over the 2010-11 campaign. The overall mark equaled its best-ever performance recorded last season. La Placa said the "condensed season put a number of games outside of ESPN's traditional Wednesday and Friday windows" and its coverage also went up against some NCAA tournament games. "Still, ESPN matched the 2010-11 season, which was our most-viewed. It was a good year with the NBA."
It was a very good year for the 59 million-home NBA TV, which over 96 games, rang up a 33% increase to 337,000 viewers from 253,000 for the same number of contests last season and a 34% jump to 266,000 households from 199,000. Six of the network's top 10 telecasts came this season, including the battle for Staples Center between the Lakers and Clippers on Jan. 14 that averaged 756,000 viewers, its most ever for a regular-season affair.
Throughout the season, NBA TV scored a 26% gain in viewers to 177,000 and a 27% rise to 141,000 homes in primetime
"The density of the schedule helped NBA TV. Not only were there so many great games, but Open Court, Game Time and NBA Action all grew," said Miller. "The 24-hour news cycle never stopped. NBA TV had gains with demos in all dayparts."
In a further show of strength, the network will step up its game, producing up to nine playoff contests. The telecasts will be the first NBA TV will produce independently, with TNT and NBA TV commentators, since Turner Sports and the NBA inked their partnership to jointly manage the league's digital assets.
Meanwhile, TNT, in its 28th season with the league, dunked its fifth straight year of growth among viewers and households, according to officials at the "drama" network. Over 45 contests, TNT averaged a 1.7 U.S. rating, up 6% from a 1.6 mark last season, 1.91 million households, a 6% increase over 1.79 million and 2.49 million viewers, 4% more than 2.39 million, according to Nielsen data.
All told, the top six 2011-12 NBA regular-season games on cable aired on TNT, including the fourth- and fifth- most-viewed regular-season contests in cable history with 5.86 million turning in the Celtics-Knicks, which tipped off the season on Christmas, and 5.09 million for the Knicks-Heat on Feb. 23, during the height of Linsanity. (Those contests only trailed the 7.35 milion viewers for Heat-Celtics on Oct. 26, 2010, the 7.27 million for Bulls-Lakers on Feb. 2, 1996 and the 7.09 million for Heat-Cavaliers on Dec. 2, 2010.)
"We should all age so gracefully," said Miller. "There is a strong interest among younger demos. Having a lot of young fans speaks to the health of the league and we're looking to sustain and continue that growth next season."
What about the postseason? With teams scrambling for playoff positioning until Thursday, the final night of the regular campaign, executives from TNT, ESPN and the league were working late to balance seedings, windows and logistics in putting the initial schedule together.
For its part, TNT notched the best NBA playoff deliveries in cable history last year, averaging a 3.5 U.S. household rating, just under 4 million households and 5.53 million watchers.
"I'm not going to make any specific projections, but going from the regular season into the postseason there are again many strong narratives that will drive interest," said Miller of TNT's annual "40 games in 40 nights" presentation that will culminate this season with exclusive coverage of the Western Conference finals.
Since the partners alternate by season under the current contract that expires in 2016, ESPN will present the Eastern Conference finals, before the Alphabet televises The Finals, which will tip later in June this year because of the lockout.
ESPN averaged a 3.6 cable rating during its 2011 playoff coverage, up 6% from its 3.4 mark in 2010, while ABC matched its 6.6 national mark from the prior season.
Would ABC season take a rematch of last season's Finals between LeBron James's Heat and Dirk Nowitzki and the defending champion Dallas Mavericks, which averaged a 10.1 national rating and 17.3 million viewers?
"It was a great matchup with two big markets," said LaPlaca."Let's see how things play out."
The 14 other playoff teams will have something to say about that.
WESTERN CONFERENCE - FIRST ROUND
San Antonio vs. Utah
Game 1 - Sun. April 29, Utah at San Antonio, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN
Game 2 - Wed. May 2, Utah at San Antonio, 7 p.m., TNT
Game 3 - Sat. May 5, San Antonio at Utah, 10 p.m., TNT
Game 4 - Mon. May 7, San Antonio at Utah, TBD
Game 5 * Wed. May 9, Utah at San Antonio, TBD
Game 6 * Fri. May 11, San Antonio at Utah, TBD
Game 7 * Sun. May 13, Utah at San Antonio, TBD
Oklahoma City vs. Dallas
Game 1 - Sat. April 28, Dallas at Oklahoma City, 9:30 p.m., ESPN
Game 2 - Mon. April 30, Dallas at Oklahoma City, 9:30 p.m., TNT
Game 3 - Thu. May 3, Oklahoma City at Dallas, 9:30 p.m., TNT
Game 4 - Sat. May 5, Oklahoma City at Dallas, 7:30 p.m., TNT/R
Game 5 * Mon. May 7, Dallas at Oklahoma City, TBD
Game 6 * Thu. May 10, Oklahoma City at Dallas, TBD
Game 7 * Sat. May 12, Dallas at Oklahoma City ,TBD, TNT
L.A. Lakers vs. Denver
Game 1 - Sun. April 29, Denver at L.A. Lakers, 3:30 p.m., ABC/R
Game 2 - Tue. May 1, Denver at L.A. Lakers, 10:30 p.m., TNT
Game 3 - Fri May 4, L.A. Lakers at Denver, 10:30 p.m., ESPN
Game 4 - Sun. May 6, L.A. Lakers at Denver, 9:30 p.m., TNT
Game 5 * Tue. May 8, Denver at L.A. Lakers, TBD
Game 6 * Thu. May 10, L.A. Lakers at Denver, TBD
Game 7 * Sat. May 12, Denver at L.A. Lakers, TBD, TNT
Memphis vs. L.A. Clippers
Game 1 - Sun. April 29, L.A. Clippers at Memphis, 9:30 p.m., TNT
Game 2 - Wed. May 2, L.A. Clippers at Memphis, 9:30 p.m., TNT
Game 3 - Sat. May 5, Memphis at L.A. Clippers, 4:30 p.m., ESPN
Game 4 - Mon. May 7, Memphis at L.A. Clippers, TBD
Game 5 * Wed. May 9, L.A. Clippers at Memphis, TBD
Game 6 * Fri. May 11, Memphis at L.A. Clippers, TBD
Game 7 * Sun. May 13, L.A. Clippers at Memphis, TBD
EASTERN CONFERENCE - FIRST ROUND
Chicago vs. Philadelphia
Game 1 - Sat. April 28, Philadelphia at Chicago, 1 p.m., TNT
Game 2 - Tue. May 1, Philadelphia at Chicago, 8 p.m., TNT
Game 3 - Fri. May 4, Chicago at Philadelphia, 8 p.m., ESPN
Game 4 - Sun. May 6, Chicago at Philadelphia, 1 p.m., ABC
Game 5 * Tue. May 8, Philadelphia at Chicago, TBD
Game 6 * Thu. May 10, Chicago at Philadelphia, TBD
Game 7 * Sat. May 12, Philadelphia at Chicago, TBD, TNT
Miami vs. New York
Game 1 - Sat. April 28, New York at Miami, 3:30 p.m., ABC/R
Game 2 - Mon. April 30, New York at Miami, 7 p.m., TNT
Game 3 - Thu. May 3, Miami at New York, 7 p.m., TNT
Game 4 - Sun. May 6, Miami at New York, 3:30 p.m., ABC/R
Game 5 * Wed. May 9, New York at Miami, TBD
Game 6 * Fri. May 11, Miami at New York, TBD
Game 7 * Sun. May 13, New York at Miami, TBD
Indiana vs. Orlando
Game 1 - Sat. April 28, Orlando at Indiana, 7 p.m., ESPN
Game 2 - Mon. April 30, Orlando at Indiana, 7:30 p.m., NBA TV
Game 3 - Wed. May 2, Indiana at Orlando, 7:30 p.m., NBA TV
Game 4 - Sat. May 5, Indiana at Orlando, 2 p.m., ESPN
Game 5 * Tue. May 8, Orlando at Indiana, TBD
Game 6 * Fri. May 11, Indiana at Orlando, TBD
Game 7 * Sun. May 13, Orlando at Indiana, TBD
Boston vs. Atlanta
Game 1 - Sun. April 29, Boston at Atlanta, 7 p.m., TNT
Game 2 - Tue. May 1, Boston at Atlanta, 7:30 p.m., NBA TV
Game 3 - Fri. May 4, Atlanta at Boston, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2
Game 4 - Sun May 6, Atlanta at Boston, 7 p.m., TNT
Game 5 * Tue. May 8, Boston at Atlanta, TBD
Game 6 * Thu. May 10, Atlanta at Boston, TBD
Game 7 * Sat. May 12, Boston at Atlanta, TBD, TNT
* if necessary
All times are Eastern
TBD - To Be Determined
R - ESPN radio