NBA on TNT - Not the Slam Dunk It Appears to Be

The NBA has been anything but a lay up this season for television networks. Yet there seems to be a silver lining - at least for cable network TNT.

The playoffs - which are one of the key TV advertising revenue generators for the league -- have been down 26 percent on TNT, 15 percent on ESPN, and 35 percent on ABC. Much of drop has to do with the teams themselves and the competitiveness of the games.

Yet The New York Times wants you to know TNT has been doing better with the NBA playoffs - generally speaking - than its cross-town cable rival, ESPN. The story suggests that TNT can claim somewhat of a victory because it is not quite the total sports network that ESPN is - TNT being mostly a general-interest entertainment programming network.

TNT and its sister cable network, TBS, have been airing the NBA for the last 21 years. For the last three years, TNT has been sharing the NBA's national cable TV games with ESPN.



The truth is that ESPN is closing the gap - seemingly the more interesting buried piece of the story. Where it was 0.7 of a rating point behind TNT in 2004, this year it is only 0.2 of a rating point behind. In the crazy TV ratings world these days, these small numbers mean big advertising benjamins.

Still, no one is happy about any drop in ratings. Analysts - even in the Times story --- point fingers, like they always do, on the absent of New York and especially Los Angeles' teams. The absence of big-name players and their off-court squabbling storylines is also a problem. Shaquille O'Neal is still in the playoff hunt with the Miami Heat, but there is no Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Times story makes a good point: TNT's three-year dominance over ESPN has a lot to do with airing many more playoff games, all of which gives the marketing hounds at Turner Broadcasting Co. more time to amp up the NBA promotional noise.

Perhaps it isn't so much the reporting, as it is the headline. And that finger points to certain desk editors. As every reporter in the country will tell you - no matter how large or small the publication -- reporters don't write or right the headlines. This one said: "TNT Knows Success With N.B.A. Ratings."

Well, yes. But it knows a lot more. That it's a complicated NBA TV life that doesn't always go up and score.

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