Networks encourage fans to watch their competitors

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

NEW YORK (AP) — Please watch another channel.

That encouragement is popping up more and more during sports broadcasts. Viewers tuning into the National League Championship Series on Fox Sports 1 saw an ad behind the batter promoting the ALCS on TBS, and vice versa.

Sure, they're helping the competition, network executives say. They also believe they're helping themselves. If more fans get excited about the NLCS, the thinking goes, they'll also be more likely to tune into ALCS games.

As Fox Sports President Eric Shanks puts it, "A rising tide lifts all ships."

It all sounds so logical that the bigger question is why this wasn't common until recently.

Tim Brosnan, Major League Baseball's executive vice president of business, says he never heard anyone from a rights-holder's sports division balk at the suggestion of promoting another network. But their bosses higher up in the corporate hierarchy were often leery of boosting the competition in any way.

Over the years, live games have become more valuable to these companies because of their ability to attract large audiences that other programming can't match. That's given the sports executives more clout to advocate for the cross-promotion, Brosnan said.

The shift toward lengthier rights deals also motivates network executives to try to build up a league, as opposed to just promoting broadcasts on their network. MLB's contracts with Fox, TBS and ESPN go through 2021. The NFL's with CBS, Fox and NBC don't end until 2022. The NBA's with ESPN and TNT last until 2025.

"They're investing in a property and its well-being for a long time," Brosnan said.

And maybe they're feeling a bit less cutthroat since they're not bidding against each other as often.

Turner Broadcasting System President David Levy, whose company owns TBS and TNT, said technological advances have also made execs more cooperative.

"When it was just television, maybe you felt a little bit more controlled," he said recently. "But when it's all screens, all the time, social (media) — now you just want to grow the whole business."

Levy had just sat next to ESPN President John Skipper at an announcement of the NBA's contract extensions with the two companies. He credited former NBA Commissioner David Stern and successor Adam Silver for making an early push for cross-promotion. That's why viewers will see a graphic highlighting upcoming TNT games during an ESPN broadcast and vice versa.

"If Skipper does well, I do well," Levy said. "If I do well, Skipper does well, because the brand does well."

The NFL's TV partners have started airing graphics plugging games on other networks, too. For leagues with broadcasts on multiple channels, it's also a practical solution to let viewers know where to find the next action.

And for the networks, it's good for business in other ways. Consider those billboards during the baseball playoffs an alternative to paying for outside marketing to promote these series.

"It's not only smart, it's probably as efficient a media play as any of them can make," Brosnan said of Fox and TBS trading ad space.

"It's as targeted an audience you can find," he added.

The cooperation between ESPN and Fox in the new Major League Soccer contracts that start next season is even more extensive. On Sundays, the two networks will combine for an MLS doubleheader — the first game on ESPN, the second on FS1.

"We're going to work together to try to elevate the sport," Skipper said as he sat alongside Fox's Shanks to announce the new deals in May.

Formal partnerships between networks have also become more common. CBS and Turner essentially act as one company when they air the NCAA tournament, with announcers encouraging viewers to flip among the four networks showing games.

CBS is collaborating with NFL Network on the new Thursday night deal, with the early-season games simulcast on the two channels. Both the CBS and NFL Network logos appear on graphics.

Since NFL Network is a league-owned entity, it's a bit different from CBS teaming up with Turner. Then again, when the games switch to NFL Network only later in the season, CBS' top announcing team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will be calling a broadcast that competes against CBS' popular Thursday night shows.

Once again, the bottom line is that what's good for the NFL is good for the network.

"We are determined to work with the NFL to make sure this is a success," CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus said before the season, "and we are determined to put all of our resources, both in front of the camera and behind the camera, to guarantee that success."