From NBC's perspective, the Michael and Magic show was terrific in every respect but longevity.
Had the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers extended their basketball championship series into games 6 and 7 this weekend, the network stood to make an extra $10 million a game, say analysts and sources close to NBC.
Still, neither NBC nor its advertisers has cause to complain about the five-game series that ended with Chicago's victory Wednesday night. The network capped its first season of a four-year, $600-million National Basketball Assn. contract with the second-highest-rated NBA series ever, and one that averaged more television households per game than any other.
The advertisers--especially those who signed on when NBC was preselling its basketball package early last year--got an even better deal than they expected.
"From what we've heard from our (advertising) agency, the finals delivered exceptionally well," said a source at Nissan Motor Corp. who asked not to be identified.
Nissan was one of eight auto makers, plus Miller Brewing Co., that signed on early for the full four years of NBC's regular season and playoff coverage.
In deciding whether to buy time for sports events such as the NBA playoffs, advertisers typically use the previous year's ratings as a guide, said Jim Cunningham, associate national broadcast director for Foote, Cone & Belding ad agency in New York. He said NBC raised prices over what CBS charged last year, but "they were smart--they weren't too greedy."
And now, with average ratings for the finals up 28% over last year, Cunningham added, the advertisers feel as though they got a bargain.
NBC initially took a big risk on basketball by bidding nearly triple the $44 million a year that CBS had been paying under the previous NBA contract. However, analysts and ad industry people credit NBC with doing a good job of laying off some of the risk by locking up 60% of its advertising slots months before its first season started last November.
"We did make money in the regular season and the playoffs, and in the finals we made a little money," Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports, said Thursday. "Would we have liked it to have gone on longer? Absolutely!"
Thirty-second advertising spots in the finals were presold for $250,000 to $275,000, analysts and network sources said. Since the network had covered its production costs by the fifth game, sources said, advertising for games 6 and 7 would have been almost all profit.
By making its big NBA contract pay off, NBC has outdone rival CBS, which lost heavily in the first year of its four-year, $1.06-billion Major League Baseball contract last season. The season concluded dismally for CBS last October, when the World Series and one of the two baseball league championships resulted in four-game sweeps. CBS took a $55-million after-tax loss on its postseason coverage.
But for NBC, the three championship games aired last week vaulted the network into first place in the weekly TV ratings contest, and an NBC spokesman predicted the same result this week. Wednesday's game five drew 18.3 million households for a Nielsen rating of 19.7, second-highest ever for an NBA game.
Analysts attributed the high ratings to a couple of factors: Most obvious, the finals matched Bulls superstar Michael Jordan against the Lakers' Magic Johnson. Second, it was a face-off between teams representing two of the top three media markets.
Last year, Cunningham of Foote, Cone & Belding helped sign up client Mazda Motor Corp. for NBC's basketball package, with gratifying results.
"They think I'm a genius," he said Thursday. "Just dumb luck--how'd I know it was going to be L.A. and Chicago?"
The just-completed NBA championship series missed by one-tenth of a ratings point being the highest-rated NBA series ever, but it did set a record for most households reached. The ratings by Nielsen Media Research measure the percentage of American households with televisions that are tuned in to a particular program. This year, each ratings point represents 931,000 households. Here are the five highest-rated NBA championship series:
Year Winner Loser Rating* Households* 1987 Los Angeles Lakers Boston Celtics 15.9 13,987,000 1991 Chicago Bulls Lakers 15.8 14,710,000 1988 Lakers Detroit Pistons 15.4 13,644,000 1989 Pistons Lakers 15.1 13,650,000 1986 Celtics Houston Rockets 14.1 12,112,000
* Rating and households figures are per-game averages
Source: Nielsen Media Research