By Michael Hiestand, USA TODAY
Versus becomes a footnote in TV sports history as it's redubbed NBC Sports Network at 4 p.m. ET Monday.
To give the rebranded cable TV channel a sort of lead-in from NBC, it will debut with a half-hour postgame show from NBC's New York Rangers-Philadelphia Flyers Winter Classic. Then, NBCSN will air a Cold War on Ice documentary on an epic series between an NHL All-Star team and Soviet team 40 years ago. Not exactly topical, but a good story. In it, hockey great Phil Esposito recalls the Evil Empire showed no scruples: "They stole our beer. We had to drink homemade vodka. You ever taste homemade vodka? Go into your garage and get turpentine and drink it."
Don't laugh. NBCSN, for now anyway, wants to stress nebulous attributes such as storytelling. There isn't much choice: With many top-tier sports locked up in long-term deals, NBCSN can't upgrade the old-fashioned way by buying big events.
The channel has plenty of on-air tonnage with (often ratings-challenged) NHL, Major League Soccer and Tour de France and might have about 10 hours in daily coverage from NBC's 2012 Olympics. Initially, it will have to rely on developing non-event programming such as documentaries and talk shows banking on NBC's brand name - all hyped through the slogan "Believe" - to create a new identity.
And "Believe" isn't even a clear-cut tagline, NBC Sports chief marketer John Miller says. "It's more of a guiding light for the brand." But, as a sign in Miller's office notes, "It's the ratings, stupid." And here NBCSN, the result of the Comcast channel Versus being integrated into NBC Sports after Comcast's takeover of NBC this year, pretty much starts from scratch.
NBC research found not even half of TV viewers had heard of Versus, the name Comcast picked in 2006 to redub its OLN channel. (Other names considered were "Glory" and "Go." Go figure.) While top cable channels such as ESPN reach about 100 million households, NBCSN has about 76 million subscribers. And, for now, forget about competing with ESPN: NBCSN's college football games that this season ran opposite ESPNU games averaged 0.2% of its available households to ESPNU's 0.3%.
NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus, an ex-Turner Sports president whose father, John, was an advertising sales executive with ABC Sports in its heyday, says one problem is "when viewers came to Versus, they didn't know what to expect." NBCSN has cut some Versus shows, such as bull riding and MMA, and is trimming back hunting and fishing fare.
NBC Sports programmer Jon Miller says Versus wasn't a "sticky" network: "There was a lot for niche audiences, but nothing that would get people to stay."
And just as CBS' cable TV sports channel evolved into the CBS Sports Network, NBCSN can count on a famous TV name. "NBC is a 70-year-old brand name," John Miller says. "We'll pound away on that."
Eventually, NBCSN will need more high-profile action, with possible targets being early-season NFL Thursday night games that might become available as early as next year, MLB and NASCAR that might be up for grabs in the next couple of years or NBA rights after that league's TV deals expire in 2016.
But for now, Lazarus suggests the channel's new name Monday is sort of like naming a baby: "This is a clean palette. In a way, it's like a well-funded start-up."
New network hopes to gain foothold via NBC
NBC has shown big weekend sports events for decades, but NBC Sports Network wants viewers to think of the brand - a notion NBC Sports will flog with heavy cross-promotion for its cable TV cousin. Plans for what to offer viewers sampling the rebranded channel include:
•Talk. A weekday Sports Talk news show launched at 6 p.m. ET, and another version of the show next year will launch at 11 p.m. ET. NBC's Mark Lazarus, on how that show can be differentiated from ESPN's SportsCenter: It will offer "intelligent sports talk" where viewers are "not being barked at. Our niche is conversation. Clips and highlights would be a 'me-too strategy.' "
•NFL pregame. Having added a weekly NFL-produced NFLTurning Point show, it will get a two-hour Sunday NFL pregame show starting at 10 a.m. ET.
•New faces. In addition to known faces such as Bob Costas and Dan Patrick, Lazarus says, "Our goal is to bring fresh faces and make them recognizable." But don't expect ESPN-like catchphrases. Says NBC programmer Jon Miller, "We don't do comedy well."
Ex-NFL officiating VP Pereira makes gutsy call-out
One of the unwritten rules of TV sports: Don't speak ill of another network.
It wasn't always that way. But as networks found themselves competing against shows on hundreds of channels, rather than assuring themselves of big audiences by buying right to sports, they circled the wagons and figured everyone promoting TV sports is sort of on the same side.
Obviously, Mike Pereira didn't get the memo. And good for him.
After Fox's groundbreaking move to put the ex-NFL vice president of officiating on-air, Pereira proved to be a candid voice - not a shill for the almighty NFL. And Thursday, at FoxSports.com, he wrote that ESPN's Jon Gruden "is a blowhard in the broadcast booth who spouts off when he doesn't know what he's talking about." Pereira says Gruden "butchered two plays regarding hits on defenseless receivers."
Neither ESPN nor Gruden had any comment Thursday.
Forget the specifics of the plays - the debate is a bit like geneticists arguing about genomes - but cheers to Pereira for treating other TV analysts as in-bounds.