NBA TV Hoops It Up

Call NBA TV what you will—niche sports network, hoops heaven or NBA Nyquil—but don't call it new. At least that's the message Gregg Winik, NBA TV executive vice president and executive producer, wishes to impart.

"We've been on for four years, we're the granddaddy of them all," he says emphatically upon hearing the word new
used in conjunction with NBA TV. Winik can argue the use of new, but there definitely will be some changes to NBA TV beginning in January that will make it, well, new.

"Right now, NBA TV is more of a barker channel promoting the NBA Pass," says Winik. "Come January, NBA TV, with games and original programming, has to be more must-have TV for the NBA fan."

At first blush, a channel dedicated to the National Basketball Association would seem to have limited appeal over the course of a full year. The NBA season runs from the end of October through April, with playoffs through mid-June. But throw in the WNBA (whose playoffs run through September) and a growing amount of international basketball competitions. and the opportunity to offer relevant content expands greatly.

"There was a day in the middle of September when, for the first time, we didn't have a game somewhere," says Winik. "We're pretty much year-round programmers."

Technical operations for the channel are headquartered in Secaucus, N.J. The NBA built a facility there in the early 1990s to house ancillary NBA programming like Inside Stuff
as well as the NBA Draft Lottery. It has a wide array of editing facilities as well as studio space and transmission facilities.

About 12 years ago, NBA Commissioner David Stern began an effort to have the NBA more closely control and promote its image. The broadcast facilities went a long way to that end, and, since then, technology has played an important role in the NBA's messaging.

"Like the content, the technology will be supercharged for NBA TV," says Winik. "It has to be interactive, and it has to be high-definition, so there's a lot of things we'll be working on in the next couple of months."

The goal, he adds, is to use leading-edge technology to go along with the content, with interactivity and HDTV, for example, expanding the relationship between fan and the league. He says the network will dabble in HDTV this upcoming year and plans to offer four weekly NBA HD games beginning in the 2003-04 season.

The league has seen favorable responses to HDTV from MSOs and satellite, Winik says, "because people are looking for more than another analog network. And NBA games four nights a week in HD plus all of the original content is an eye-opener."

From a game-production standpoint, Winik's challenge is to find new places to put cameras because there aren't many more places that cameras can go. "I'd like to put cameras in different places, but there are a lot of people paying good money for good seats so you can't put them there," he explains. "But, with new technologies like SkyCam and TrackCam that run up and down the sidelines, there are some possibilities."

HD, of course, will help, allowing viewers to see how the guy in the third row is reacting to the play. "Everything becomes more intimate with HD," Winik says.

Much of the programming will be games from the NBA and WNBA, but there will also be five- or seven-day-a-week programs that will give viewers more inside stuff. And faces that typically wouldn't get in front of the viewers, such as assistant coaches or league officials, will also have a greater presence.

The four games a week that NBA TV is considering will fill the gaps left by the current contract with ABC, ESPN and TNT. NBA TV will likely broadcast its games on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Saturday nights.

Is that too much NBA? Winik doesn't think so. "What we're seeing with the NBA is what we're seeing with other content: Consumers want their content whenever they want it, so, if you happen to have an extra two hours on a Monday night to watch an NBA game, that's when you want to watch it."

The challenge for NBA TV is getting carriage deals in place with cable operators. AOL Time Warner, which has an 11% stake, is one probable easy target. Comcast, Cablevision and Charter also may be easy deals, because the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Portland Trailblazers, respectively, are related through ownership to the cable systems.