NBC hopes figure skating will be ready for prime time

  • Article by: JUDD ZULGAD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 24, 2008 - 7:27 PM

Ratings have not been kind in recent years, but the network is trying to return the sport to the high profile it once held.

There are no guarantees the move of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships from ABC/ESPN to NBC is going to help an event that has fallen off the ratings map. But at least the shift -- which ended a 43-year partnership with ABC -- will get it back in the spotlight.

In the first of a three-year deal, NBC will have seven hours of combined coverage on Saturday and Sunday from Xcel Energy Center, with five of those in prime time. The seven hours is the most by an over-the-air network since 1998.

Of course, that came in an Olympic year and at a time when figure skating was considered a hot television property. With the memory of Nancy Kerrigan getting belted in the knee by Tonya Harding's goons still fresh, ABC averaged a 9.0 rating for those championships and posted an 11.5 rating on a Saturday night.

But the numbers began a steady decline and by last year, most of the skating was buried late night on ESPN2. ABC had a 1.7 rating for its limited afternoon coverage and ESPN2 produced a 0.6 figure.

"It broke my heart to see the men's event take place in the middle of the night on ESPN2 last year," said Scott Hamilton, who will be an analyst for NBC. "To get that prime-time respect that NBC is giving it will really show the United States that skating is a prime-time network event."

NBC (Ch. 11), which has the rights to the Olympics through 2012, is taking a limited risk. While ABC/ESPN paid $12 million a year, NBC isn't on the hook for a rights fee and revenue will be shared.

David Michaels, who produces the network's figure skating coverage, is looking forward to this opportunity.

"[ESPN's] mainstream audience is not people that watch figure skating," said Michaels, the younger brother of NBC NFL broadcaster Al Michaels. "To me the most incredible thing was to watch figure skating with college basketball scores underneath. It was like, 'You can't be serious.' But in their business model, that's how they do it. I can't fault them for it. ... For me, the best news I had was when Dick [Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports] called and said we had this contract. It was like, 'Let's see what we can do with it.'"

NBC is attempting to give this the feel of a big event by having a number of on-air personalities in St. Paul. Bob Costas, the face of the network's sports division, will host and be joined by legendary figure skating analyst Dick Button, as well as Olympic gold medalists Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. Tom Hammond will describe the skating with Hamilton, Sandra Bezic and Tracy Wilson providing analysis; Andrea Joyce serves as the reporter.

This does not mean Michaels wants constant on-air chatter. "The No. 1 difference for us is there won't be talking wall-to-wall during the skating," he said. "Skating is complicated enough and to sit there and have this glide-by-glide analysis. Let people watch and then you can talk. ... This is a work in progress, an experiment I want to try, and we'll see if it works."

Saturday's coverage will run from 3 to 5 p.m. and then from 7 to 10 p.m., with the women's final airing in the latter session. The men's final will be shown in the 6 to 8 p.m. slot Sunday. The skating will be complete by that time but network execs decided to air it on tape delay in part because it will take up valuable prime-time real estate that has grown tougher to fill due to the strike by the Writers Guild of America.

"We're hoping that with so many of these fake reality shows and all this other stuff that [is airing these days] that people might want to see a real event," Michaels said.

Just a rumor?

There have been rumblings for several months that a package of NHL games is going to end up on ESPN or ESPN2 next season. But this week Versus announced it will remain the cable home of the NHL through the 2010-11 season and Marc Fein, senior vice president of programming and production for Versus, said Thursday there have been no discussions about farming out any games to ESPN.

"We are the exclusive home of [the NHL] on cable," Fein said. "If the NHL did come to us and want to have that discussion, we would sit down and listen." Fein said conversations are taking place about Versus expanding its NHL schedule next season.

Fine-tuning

• KSTP Radio sports-talk host Matt Thomas, who is on from 5:30 to 8 p.m. on weekdays, will do his show next week from the Super Bowl at the Phoenix Convention Center.

Judd Zulgad • jzulgad@startribune.com

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