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Starkey: NBC ruining Penguins' party

| Thursday, May 6, 2010

Turner Broadcasting and CBS recently agreed to pay $10.8 billion for television rights to the NCAA men's basketball tournament. This contrasted sharply to the NHL's six-year-old deal with NBC, which called for the latter to fork over a lot less than $10.8 billion.

Like, $10.8 billion less.

That's right, NBC paid $0 in up-front fees. Nothing. Nada. You could have raided your kid's piggy bank and outbid them. You could have dipped your hand into the fountain at Bessemer Court in Station Square and pulled out a rusted penny and outbid them.

The league and the network agreed to split advertising revenue instead. It was a nontraditional deal in a sport that clearly needed some serious growing in the United States. Still does.

Which brings us to the big-screen controversy at Mellon Arena.

Two springs ago, the Penguins wondered if renting a screen and showing games outside of Gate 3 might spice up the downtown playoff ambiance. The idea took off like Sidney Crosby on a breakaway. Pretty soon, thousands were flocking to the lawn parties. They brought chairs and coolers and boundless enthusiasm.

It was quite a party ... until NBC ruined it.

Before NBC's broadcast of Game 3 of last year's Flyers series, the outdoor screen (sponsored by Trib Total Media) was ordered down. The blackout has continued, though the Penguins still show Versus and FSN playoff telecasts on the outdoor screen.

The controversy has quieted for now, because NBC isn't involved in the rest of the Canadiens series. If the Penguins advance, however, outrage will follow — especially if the team reaches the Final, which could have up to five games on NBC.

The first problem here is that NBC won't publicly explain itself. In my first conversation with a network spokesperson, I was directed to the NHL.

League spokesman Jamey Horan then sent the Trib an e-mail that read like this: "For NBC games, the NHL grants 'exclusive' broadcast rights to NBC, and our contract precludes public showings without NBC's prior written consent."

Why no written consent• The network spokesperson did not want to be quoted but outlined the reasoning: Allowing an outdoor broadcast would break a precedent that cuts across most networks and sports, whereby public viewings are deemed bad for ratings and thus not permitted (the Buffalo Sabres broke the precedent with a recent outdoor viewing, but that was only because NBC apparently was not aware of it).

I get the logic. Some of the lawn people might have Nielsen ratings boxes at home and hurt the rating if they are out and about. But doesn't it stand to reason that those people obviously crave a group-viewing and probably wouldn't be watching at home anyway?

Either way, NBC's decision is hopelessly short-sighted, because the big story here is that thousands of people are gathering to watch a hockey game on television. In this country, that is rarer than a roaming bison and should be celebrated, not eradicated.

Maybe some of those fans, attracted by the atmosphere, become enthused about the sport. Maybe they watch Vancouver-Chicago on NBC to see how possible future opponents stack up.

NBC should accentuate the outdoor party during its broadcasts, paint the picture of how a traditional football market has embraced hockey to the point where 6,000 or so people watch from lawn chairs.

Message point: This could happen in your city.

Obviously, the network wouldn't want outdoor viewings to spread to football. Can you imagine the crowd if a Steelers' NBC game against Baltimore — with the division title on the line — was shown outside of Heinz Field?

That dilemma is easily solvable. NBC could permit outdoor showings only for hockey. Or it could limit the size of outdoor viewing areas.

This isn't splitting atoms. It's just a hockey party.

Use it as promotional tool, NBC. Use it to sell the game.

Don't cost nothin'.

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