Buoyed by strong ratings performances during their freshman campaigns, Turner Network Television and ESPN are banking on the appeal of a strong rookie crop and elite teams to drive ratings for their respective National Basketball Association packages.
TNT, which will air 52 regular-season games during its 20th year of NBA coverage — the second in its current six-year, $2.2 billion pact with the league — is hoping to build on last season's momentum. The network averaged a 1.2 household rating for the regular season, up 20% from 2001-02.
With its Thursday night package well-established among cage fans, Turner Sports president David Levy believes the network could boost its regular-season ratings to a 1.5 average.
"Like everything else, it took time for us to build our Thursday night exclusive package, but I think from the All-Star Game forward we had that crowd," Levy said. "The NBA has potential to continue to rise; there are more good stories and good teams than ever before."
To aid in that effort, the network earlier this month embarked on its most extensive multimedia marketing campaign. The Spike Lee-produced campaign, "Let the Truth Be Told," features such established stars as Shaquille O'Neal, Jason Kidd and Ben Wallace and rising ones like the much-hyped high school sensation LeBron James, who is embarking on his rookie season.
While TNT's on-air coverage won't change much from last year, the roster has been altered: The Charles Barkley talk show Listen Up!, which aired prior to NBA games, has been replaced by a Gatorade-sponsored pre-game show.
"There were some creative challenges [with Listen Up!] — ratings weren't a factor. It was more about where we put Charles and make use of his talents," Levy said.
ESPN also hopes to build on last year's success. The network averaged a 1.2 rating for its package of Wednesday and Friday night games, which represented a 54% increase over various sports programming during those time slots. The network will air 64 games this season, with sister service ESPN2 offering eight others.
"We came out of the box very strong, and ended up with a rating comparable to Turner's," said ESPN vice president and assistant to the president Rob Simmelkjaer. "Considering we were coming out of the gate for the first time, it was a great rookie year."
While Simmelkjaer wouldn't offer any ratings projections for this season, he said the network's telecast will sport a fresh look and feel behind new producer and former Turner Sports executive Michael Pearl, who is now overseeing production. ESPN's presentation will also be distinctive from sister network ABC's broadcast coverage.
"We'll have different music and graphics packages for ABC [than ESPN]," he said. "People will see a significant difference than last year."
For the first time, ESPN will tip off several Sunday night games in February and March, in an effort to use the NBA as a draw on what has historically been the network's strongest viewing night.
As the pro hoops season nears, observers are wondering about the effect several off-court episodes involving high-profile players, notably Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, will have on viewership. Bryant, accused of raping a hotel attendant last June, might be on trial next spring.
Simmelkjaer said that while it's unclear what effect the Bryant situation will have on ratings, it has created a certain buzz for the league and has not affected ad sales.
"Now that we have the relationships built up and people know we're a player in the game, we're definitely at a better point than we were a year ago," he said, without divulging a sell-through level.
TNT officials said the network has sold about 70% of its NBA inventory thus far.
Katz Television Media Group vice president and director of programming Bill Carroll said the NBA ultimately will sink or swim based on the development of new and exciting talent.
"What they need to look at now — even if there isn't a next Michael Jordan — is to groom four or five young attractive, talented players that will reinvigorate interest in NBA basketball," Carroll said. "Good play and breakout players ultimately make the difference [for advertisers]."