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Hockey on MSNBC Was the Right Call

Ryan Kesler (L) celebrates with Zach Parise after his empty net goal ices the game for Team USA in the last minute. Image via AP

Last night, after Team USA’s nailbiting victory over the heavily favored Canadians in men’s hockey, fellow Mediaite writer Anthony DeRosa called it “the greatest hockey game you never saw.” Yet I think he overstates his point. For a game “no one saw,” why were topics like “Ryan Miller,” “MSNBC” and “GO USA” trending?

As exciting as this game was — and trust me, as an American college and pro hockey fan, I could not have asked for more in the upset — from a media planning standpoint, it always belonged on the cable channel. While some joked of conspiracy theories related to carrier coverage of MSNBC’s new HD channel, more level-headed minds note that there was a very good strategy behind the placement of it.

First: this was not a game with severe implications on the Olympic tournament. Claim the rivalry all you want, but in the round robin stage, not very much was at stake. Additionally, as exciting as the young American squad has been in their first games, they really were heavy underdogs. The audience for the game would be there, but it would be the fanatics, not the greater interest. This was not supposed to be a close game — and it could very well be forgotten if there is a rematch in the medal round.

Second: the sliver of American hockey fans is still a niche demographic, likely heavily male and cut across a wide age group. Compare that to the audience that likely is watching TV on Sundays; with normal programming winners like Desperate Housewives, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and the Amazing Race, the audience that advertisers who buy for those times want to gain is from those broader groups that include more household buyers. Ice Dancing and Bobsled bring that, a fast-paced hockey game may force viewers elsewhere. Plus, tape delay likely doesn’t harm those events, so commercial time is still ample to hand out to advertisers.

Third: Due to factors ranging from the digital cable mandate to comparative cost and access, cable households were by far the norm by the end of the last decade. In the sports world, the cable standard was pretty much solidified when ABC moved Monday Night Football to cable’s ESPN for the start of the 2006 season. There were some complaints of areas or providers without HD access (as noted by the Television by the Numbers post linked above — and a valid one because hockey may benefit from HD more than any other sport given the size of the puck and speed of the game), but cable still gave the opportunity for no commercial breaks and a broadcast live on both coasts. In a game that intense, it made a difference, and we held our collective breath (apparently along with Bill Simmons’s father). On network, the game would have (a) been broken up more by commercials and (b) likely been delayed on the west coast. Given how those topics were trending and how mainstream outlets like ESPN.com publicized the score as it happened, even the most vigilant fan would have certainly stumbled on a spoiler.

That actually seems like a well-thought out plan for the MSNBC broadcast – but the final ratings will also show if there was an actual impact on the audience. I have a gut feeling, waiting for the numbers, that NBC’s primetime still won the evening over other broadcasts, but at a closer clip to its competition than Saturday. Dan Fogarty noted last night that MSNBC could not have asked for more, and it’s safe for both of us to guess that tremendously tremendous numbers on the cable news channel are also very likely, so we’ll have to try and guess where the audience came from — my guess is non-Olympic stations like ESPN.

NBC is getting painted into every lose-lose situation possible over the last week. Look at last night as the win that it actually was – a live, unfiltered display of one of the most memorable hockey games of the last 30 years. If the US meets Canada again in the medal round, you better believe we’ll tune in no matter what channel.

Disclosure: GE, NBC’s owner, is a client of my employer; however, opinions contained within this piece are my own.

Dave Levy spends most of his day working on Edelman’s Digital Public Affairs team in Washington, DC. A media researcher on the side and a self-proclaimed geek, he blogs often about how traditional media adapts – or tries to adapt – to the growing social media world atState of the Fourth Estate.

Follow Dave on Twitter here.

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Dave Levy spends most of his day working on Edelman’s Digital Public Affairs team in Washington, DC. A media researcher on the side and a self-proclaimed geek, he blogs often about how traditional media adapts – or tries to adapt – to the growing social media world at State of the Fourth Estate. You can follow Dave on Twitter for various updates about everything from sports from his previous home in Boston to eccentric and obscure pop culture references.