Beating the Bear

NBA television ratings are down, but everything else on TV is down more. That may not be good enough anymore.

A decade ago, the Cancellation Bear became famous in television circles. The Bear was a gimmick that tracked the survival prospects of primetime broadcast television shows, on the now-shuttered TV By the Numbers website. The “Bear” name was chosen as a nod to the old camping cliché, “you don’t have to be faster than the bear, you just have to be faster than the slowest person.”

The Bear idea has existed in television since its inception.

Networks have a limited number of hours of primetime programming. They want to make the most of those hours. It may not be good for the ego to see a given TV show’s audience shrink, but that can be explained away. “Overall TV viewership is down.” “There are more channels than ever.” “More and more people are spending time online.”

It is when a TV show becomes the least-viewed on a network that the threat of cancellation looms. Excuses are harder to come by, and network executives begin looking for programming alternatives.

As evidenced by last night’s Jazz vs. Nuggets Game 7, the NBA remains very safe from the Bear. Television networks value the advertiser-friendly 18-49 year-old demographic, and ABC’s Game 7 telecast attracted a 1.0 rating in that demo. Nothing else on primetime broadcast television drew over a 0.7.

A close look at last night’s primetime broadcast ratings puts the NBA’s much talked-about ratings declines in perspective. Sure, the NBA’s TV numbers are down. But ‘America’s Got Talent’, NBC’s signature summer show, is down even more; about 50% from last year. New summer reality fare, like ‘Love Island’ and ‘Tough as Nails’, have not come close to non-fractional, 1.0+ ratings levels in the demo.

It all must feel good to the NBA and its partners. Nobody likes to be needled by the President about disappointing results, even a President they don’t like. To win, win big, and win on a night, Tuesday, not known for NBA games has to be satisfying.

Even with last night’s success, there is a more existential question that bears asking: at what point does linear television’s financial picture start to decline?

An over-reported development of the last few decades has been the decline in broadcast and cable/satellite (“linear”) television ratings. An under-reported development has been the financial strength of the networks who suffer those ratings drops. Even as viewership and demo ratings have declined, advertising and carriage revenues have increased. Marketers have shown a willingness to pay more money for fewer eyeballs, and cable & satellite companies have begrudgingly paid increasing amounts for the rights to package networks for non-cord cutting customers.

In some ways, the NBA is in a different bear chase. Instead of being a TV show running from a bear chasing shows for cancellation, the Association is part of a linear TV ecosystem that being chased by a bear looking to gobble up platforms that aren’t worthy of companies’ advertising dollars.

The pandemic shutdowns have led companies to slash marketing budgets. Thus far, every organization that sells ads — linear TV networks, websites like Facebook & Google, outdoor platforms like billboards & busses — has taken a hit.

At some point, there could be a shakeout. Marketers could decide that linear TV’s advertising virtues — large groups watching, video storytelling, cumbersome opt-outs — outweigh its costs.

For the NBA and other second-tier sports (sorry, but the NFL is alone on the top tier), their financial future is increasingly tethered to that of broadcast and cable/satellite networks. That fact could pose more of a threat than the old days of the cancellation bear.

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