NBC, Versus Offer ‘One-Stop Shopping’ for NHL Playoffs

The first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is in the books, and, if the Nielsen ratings are any indication, the newly formed NBC Sports Group is poised to become a dominant player on the sports-television landscape. Both Versus and NBC are boasting huge viewership gains, delivering the most-watched opening round on cable in 17 years and the most-watched on network television since 2004. According to Executive Producer Sam Flood, there’s no mystery to the cause of this ratings windfall.

“I don’t think there is any question that the biggest reason [for the high ratings] is the cross-promotion between the two networks,” he says. “I was really proud of the way we worked back and forth between the two networks during the first round in terms of both promotion and production. I think that the key to this new deal is that hockey is one-stop shopping from this point forward.”

A Ratings Bonanza
The playoff telecasts on both networks, as well as on Comcast SportsNet RSNs, are benefitting from extensive cross-promotion across the vast resources of NBC Sports Group, including NBCUniversal’s 20 channels and 40-plus Websites.

Versus’s first-round coverage averaged 624,000 viewers, making it the most-watched in network history and up 8% from last year’s first round (595,000). NBC’s four games over two weekends averaged 1.9 million viewers, the most since ABC aired two games averaging 2.0 million viewers in 2004 and up 12% from last year’s coverage (1.7 million). This comes following Versus’s most-watched NHL regular season ever and a 4% rise in viewership on NBC (1.62 million viewers vs. 1.56 million).

“I certainly hope [the ratings] will continue,” says Flood. “You never can predict that. It’s all based on matchups and how long those matchups go. If this round becomes four-game sweeps, then we will suffer. But we can’t control that, so we just have to put on the best possible show.”

Second Round Off and Running
With the second round already under way, NBC and Versus will air seven games in four days, a run that began Thursday with Vancouver’s 1-0 win over Nashville. Versus will air at least two exclusive games per series in addition to non-exclusive games, and NBC will air two exclusive games per weekend.

For the second round, Flood and company will add several cameras to the coverage of all four series, including additional robotic cameras at center ice and behind the goals. However, the focus of the coverage will continue to revolve around “Inside the Glass,” with Pierre McGuire, Darren Pang, and others analyzing games from between the teams’ benches.

“We will be adding a few more cameras as we get deeper into the playoffs, but the core philosophy remains, and that is driven by ‘Inside the Glass,’” says Flood. “We try to highlight and focus on that so that we can take the audience to the best seat in the house.”

Versus and NBC will share exclusive coverage of both Conference Finals series. The networks also have exclusive rights to the Finals, which will be aired in primetime with NBC broadcasting Games 1, 2, 5, and 7 (if necessary) and Versus taking Games 3 and 4.

A Quick Maturation
Flood says that, in just three short months, NBC Sports Group has gone from a fledgling joint venture of two independent teams to a unified network that (thanks to the new 10-year, $2 billion rights deal) serves as the destination for NHL hockey.

“It’s to the point now where it feels like a single network with one group of people doing everything,” he says. “We have people from both the Versus and NBC shops working together to create the best possible template of hockey.”

Hockey Central Comes Into Its Own
A big part of that template has been the Hockey Central pre- and post-game studio shows, which underwent significant changes in the closing months of the season in anticipation of the playoffs.

“I think the studio show has become a consistent home for the hockey fan, where they can go to get all the stories and all the insights,” says Flood. “It’s an entertaining group of people we have in there.

“The biggest production innovation was the new desk in the new studio that rolled out in the last month of the season,” he continues. “Right in front of them, they have that hockey rink that runs into the video board, and they’re able to draw on it. I think it has been a wonderful tool for [analysts] Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones. They’ve done a nice job of playing with it and making special TV with it.”