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NHL, NBC draw icy stares

Winter Classic a ratings smash

Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (left) and Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz mix it up during the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh, which was rain-delayed by seven hours on New Year’s Day. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (left) and Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz mix it up during the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh, which was rain-delayed by seven hours on New Year’s Day. (Dave Denoma/Reuters)
By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / January 7, 2011

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The NHL and NBC should take it as an encouraging sign that a hockey game delayed seven hours by rain ended up as the most-watched regular-season game in 36 years. But whether that is a harbinger of future ratings success is as cloudy as the Pittsburgh sky.

We’re referring to the Winter Classic, of course, which was postponed New Year’s Day from 1 to 8 p.m. because of rain in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins hosted the Washington Capitals.

The waterlogged surface at Heinz Field practically put a literal twist on the network’s desired “pond hockey’’ vibe, yet the 4.5 million viewers — most since 5.5 million watched the Rangers take on the Flyers in 1975 — were left with nothing but warm (and dry) sentiments.

The Winter Classic is just four years old, and yet the numbers — a 2.3 rating and 4 share this time, up from last year’s 2.1 and 4 for Flyers-Bruins at Fenway Park — confirm that it has become a New Year’s Day tradition.

There is no denying that NBC was helped by the time change. It also benefited from going up against a bowl game on ESPN that proved anticlimactic: Oklahoma’s 48-20 rout of Connecticut in the Fiesta Bowl.

Because the game fell on a Saturday, it was relatively simple to clear a prime-time window. Had it been a weeknight, the jurisdiction on bumping prime-time programming would have belonged to the entertainment side of NBC at least as much as the sports side. It’s fair to presume they’d rule in favor of, say, Tina Fey over Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.

Whether the NHL and/or NBC will consider moving the Winter Classic to prime time remains to be seen. But it’s worth noting that there are more than a couple of obstructions en route to any permanent change.

NBC’s contract with the NHL expires after this season, and while the network wants to continue the relationship, it’s questionable whether it will, particularly if ESPN wants back in.

This much is certain: Weather issues next Jan. 1 would cause a real dilemma. New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday in 2012, meaning there is considerably less chance of moving the hockey game to prime time given that NBC’s “Football Night in America,’’ a ratings monster, fills the slot.

The usual 1 p.m. slot won’t be quite so appealing, either. The puck would be dropping at the same moment the day’s first NFL games are kicking off. And that is a recipe for ratings disaster.

A viewer magnet And with that smooth segue, consider this the latest installment of our compilation of evidence that the NFL is appointment television now more than ever . . .

■ In Week 17, NFL games topped the ratings in all 30 local markets, the third time in four years that has been the case on the final week of the regular season.

■NFL games topped the ratings in local markets a record 90 percent of the time this season. The previous standard of 89 percent was set last season.

■The Patriots set a franchise record for ratings in the Boston market with an average 34.86 household rating, topping the record of 33.6 set during the 16-0 regular season in 2007. Four individual games — wins over the Packers, Colts, Bears, and Jets — earned ratings greater than 40.

In a related note, a reader asked recently about the highest-rated NFL game in the Boston market that didn’t involve the Patriots. Sources at Nielsen and the NFL Network couldn’t provide the answer. But the hunch here is that whatever the old record was, a new one will be set tomorrow night when the Patriots’ biggest rivals — the Colts and Jets — face each other in the wild-card round on Channel 7.

Counter punch In the perpetual battle between WEEI (850) and 98.5 The Sports Hub for listeners, the most compelling competition is between the morning drive programs. After The Sports Hub’s “Toucher and Rich’’ finished first in the Arbitron PPM ratings in the male 25-54 demo in November with a 9.4 share, edging WEEI’s “Dennis and Callahan’’ (8.9), D&C regained the top spot in December with a 9.6, topping T&R’s 8.9. . . . Tom Brady isn’t one to delve into his personal life when he’s fulfilling media duties. But during one charming occasion this week, an important part of his personal life did the delving for him. While the Patriots quarterback was responding to a question during his weekly appearance on “Dennis and Callahan’’ Monday, one of his sons could be heard clearly in the background exclaiming, “Daddy, look! It’s you!’’ After a brief pause, Brady explained, “He’s watching ‘SportsCenter.’ Highlights.’’ Well, of course. Beats the heck out of Elmo.

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.

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