Networks' Hopes Rise for Playoffs

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Coming off decent regular-season ratings performances, National Hockey League rightsholder ESPN and Turner Sports, the National Basketball Association's cable home, are confident they'll score big in the playoffs.

Turner Sports launched its NBA postseason coverage last Saturday, hoping to build on a 9 percent increase for its regular-season telecasts, Turner Sports senior vice president of public relations Greg Hughes said.

Buoyed by the return of Michael Jordan and the emergence of new stars like Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, Turner Network Television and TBS Superstation averaged a combined 1.2 regular-season rating, up from last year's 1.1 mark, said Hughes.

The increase stemmed a three-year NBA ratings fall for the Turner nets.

ESPN, though, launched its NHL playoff coverage April 17, having suffered a slight decline in regular-season numbers.

The network averaged a 0.5 rating, down from last year's 0.6 mark, according to ESPN senior vice president of programming Mark Quinzel. ESPN2 also suffered a ratings loss, dropping from a 0.23 from a 0.25.

Quinzel attributed the ratings decline to a slow start to the season. The league went head to head with Major League Baseball longer than normal, as baseball pushed its postseason back into November, due to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The attacks and the ensuing Afghanistan war on terrorism also siphoned off a good percentage of hockey's core male 18-to-34-year-old viewers, who watched more news during this season than in previous campaigns.

"Those viewers have been watching news in huge numbers, and that has been a challenge for the network in general, and hockey in particular," Quinzell said. "Anytime you're so heavily concentrated within a certain demographic and you take a hit, it really hurts."

Nevertheless, Quinzel believes ESPN's postseason coverage will generate some strong performances as the competition heats up. Both ESPN and Turner are counting on long playoff series to maximize ratings.

"If we can get the early-round series to go five games and extend later-round series to a sixth or seventh game, then the ratings should be great," Hughes said. "We need compelling storylines to develop and compelling matchups to be successful."

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