NHL, ESPN-ABC take another crack at TV interest

Posted: Thursday, July 12, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) -- The NHL and its broadcast partners are taking another shot at drawing viewers, retooling the TV lineup for next season so fans know when to find hockey.

The new schedule, released Wednesday, includes one major change and some minor ones designed to boost ratings that sagged 5 percent on ESPN, 14 percent on ESPN2 and 15 percent on ABC during the regular season when compared with 1999-00.

The biggest adjustment: Taking its lead from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s 50-year institution ''Hockey Night in Canada,'' ESPN will televise 25 of its 27 games on Wednesdays in prime time, rather than scattering them around the week.

''We share the same goal -- to grow the exposure and grow the ratings for our games,'' said Jon Litner, NHL chief operating officer.

''What this schedule reflects is, for the first time, there will consistently be a national hockey night for this coming season. In the past, ESPN was not able to establish a consistent night due to programming conflicts.''

Next season will be the third under the NHL's five-year, $600 million TV rights package with ABC and ESPN.

Those networks already have tried to increase viewership for a sport that has long trailed far behind the NFL, NBA and major league baseball in the TV ratings race.

The networks did their best to put Mario Lemieux on the air as often as possible after he ended his retirement during last season, ABC stuck a comedian in the booth at the All-Star game, and the schedules have been juggled.

In a bid to draw more fans, ESPN has also tried ''NHL Rules'' programming, using replays, telestrators and ESPN.com interaction to teach viewers about rules and strategy.

Still, the five Stanley Cup final games on ABC between champion Colorado and New Jersey averaged a 3.3 national rating, 11 percent lower than in 2000 -- and exactly the same as the average for the now-defunct XFL's regular-season telecasts on NBC.

''With the fragmented TV universe we're living in and with the multitude of choice out there, it's more critical than ever to create more appointment viewing and consistency in your schedule as possible,'' Litner said.

As in the 2000-01 season, ABC's five regular-season telecasts will all be on Saturdays (two seasons ago, games were split between Saturdays and Sundays).

And in an attempt to try to take advantage of NHL players participating in February's Salt Lake City Olympics, ABC will air two games in January and three in March. Last season, all of ABC's NHL broadcasts came after February's All-Star game.

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