Networks are prepared to miss the first few months of a delayed NBA season. But now that it looks like the entire season could be canceled, TNT, ESPN/ABC and the league's other broadcast partners have to make some serious programming decisions.
Yahoo! Sports reported Tuesday that the league informed teams that games through Dec. 15 have been canceled. The news came after the NBA Players Union rejected the owners' "final offer," electing to move their dispute to the courts.
And the consensus among league owners, players and observers is that all the games through April might be canceled — because the two sides seem too far apart to get a deal done in time to save the season, especially if the matter moves to court.
Both league commissioner David Stern and star player Kobe Bryant notably used hyperbolic language to refer to the sad scenario, calling it a "nuclear winter."
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It isn't that — but it could be a depressing time for TV programmers — and not just for the NBA's national broadcasting partners, TNT and ESPN/Disney, but for myriad regional sports networks, too.
In September, Turner Sports/TNT and ESPN/ABC released statements suggesting that they accepted the likelihood of a shortened season. Turner said it hoped for "an outcome that preserves as much of the 2011-12 season as possible."
ESPN hoped a "resolution can be reached in order to preserve a shortened season."
ABC had few immediate worries for the fall, since it generally doesn't begin airing games until later in the season anyway. However, since the network hopes to kick off its NBA broadcasting season with its annual big double-header, it's about to be affected, too.
So what now?
ESPN plans to fill its fall schedule with more NCAA football and basketball. And TNT plans to run its normal slate of primetime dramas and movies.
Advertisers may not be thrilled about it, but they'll still need some way to target the young male audiences who turn out for the NBA. Which means they'll have to hope that the networks have chosen the right programs to appeal to them.
It's an expensive problem: Turner and ESPN/ABC are together paying $930 million per season through the end of their contracts in 2016, and several projections have found that the networks could collectively lose out on about $1.25 billion in advertising revenue.
In an earnings call earlier this month, Disney executives expressed confidence they could earn ad dollars elsewhere because advertisers will still need to reach young men suddenly untethered from NBA games. In addition, the executives said, fewer games would reduce ESPN and ABC's rights costs.
"There are obviously other places to get male viewers than the NBA," said Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media.
But ESPN's plans to appeal to fans with more college sports can only work for so long: It can only air NCAA basketball through February, because Turner and CBS have exclusive rights to March Madness games, and NCAA football ends in January.
Also, college games may not meet the needs of advertisers looking specifically for NBA fans.
"What if you have an ad that features an NBA star?" said Jason Maltby, director of national broadcast TV at the media and marketing company Mindshare. "It works more for the NBA than in college basketball. Does it work as well in college football? Probably not. … There's no easy replacement for the NBA."