NBA.TV Tips Off, Sans Cable

Very quietly, the National Basketball Association has begun televising live games on its NBA.TV channel, while continuing to negotiate with cable operators about carriage for the digital service.

The revelation came during a week full of television-related, pro-sports league announcements, including the naming of former ESPN president Steve Bornstein as the head of the National Football League's new cable channel.

Initially, the pro basketball league planned to launch its revamped NBA.TV channel in February, after the league's traditional all-star break. But after completing distribution deals with satellite providers DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. last month for the 25-cent per-subscriber channel, sources said the league opted to tip off a month early.

The channel, which initially served as a pseudo barker channel for the league's "NBA League Pass"
out-of-market pay-per-view package, now offers national live game telecasts on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights.

Combined with ESPN's Wednesday and Friday night NBA telecasts and Turner Network Television's slate of Thursday-night doubleheaders, there is now at least one nationally televised NBA game every night of the week.

Later this season, the revamped network will also feature NBA action in a high-definition format, as well as a package of Women's NBA games, National Basketball Development League contests and match-ups from various international circuits.

Classic hoops contests, basketball-themed movies and TV shows, as well as coaching and instructional programming, are also on tap for the league's 24-hour channel.

Substitute screen

But for In Demand and cable operators yet to reach a carriage deal for the network, the NBA has replaced NBA.TV — which previously offered continuous nightly scores and highlights — with a "preview" channel promoting NBA League Pass, replete with a toll-free phone number for subscribers to call and order the PPV package.

An NBA spokesman said that the league is currently in discussions with several cable operators about carrying NBA.TV and expects to announce deals shortly.

In Demand, which distributes NBA League Pass to cable operators, declined comment.

In an effort to further expand its television reach, the NBA last week announced the development of its first ever series, Who Wants to Be an NBA/WNBA Player?

The reality skein — produced in association with Universal Television Group production arm Reveille and expected to debut in mid-2003 — will follow the lives of contestants from around the world vying for a chance to play in either the NBA or the WNBA league, said industry executives.

The chosen finalists will go through a number of tests ranging from strength and conditioning to skills, two-on-two and three-on-three games and H.O.R.S.E. Ultimately, one male and one female winner will be chosen to try out with an NBA team and a WNBA team, respectively.

The NBA and Reveille are currently shopping the project to various broadcast and cable networks, but would not reveal specifics. Representatives from ESPN and TNT both said they have yet to hear the pitch.

Bornstein on board

Meanwhile, the NFL Thursday tapped former ESPN executive Steve Bornstein to head up its new NFL Channel.

In his new position as league executive vice president of media and president and CEO of the NFL Channel, Bornstein will oversee all aspects of the NFL on television, including the new network, set to launch next fall.

He joined the NFL last September as an adviser on television and strategic media and played a pivotal role in the league's decision to extend its exclusive pact with DirecTV Inc. for the "NFL Sunday Ticket" out-of-market package through 2007.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.