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Sports Media

Battle stations

NESN, CSNNE engage in fight for viewers

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / July 8, 2011

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When captain Zdeno Chara hoisted the Stanley Cup and let loose a cathartic roar after the Bruins’ championship-clinching victory June 15 in Vancouver, 39 years of near misses and what-ifs instantly melted away. As more than a million delighted rolling rally attendees confirmed three days later, Boston’s renaissance as a “hockey town’’ was complete, and the Bruins’ first NHL title since 1971-72 was genuinely a shared triumph.

For the franchise and its fans, it was a wonderful feeling, one New England Sports Network - home for Bruins telecasts not carried by a national network since 1984 and exclusively since 1992 - naturally reveled in.

“The Red Sox and Bruins have won three world championships in the past seven years,’’ said NESN president and chief executive officer Sean McGrail. “That has obviously been sensational for Boston sports in general, but particularly so for NESN since they’re our franchises.’’ [Red Sox games air on NESN, which is owned in majority by Fenway Sports Group. The New York Times Company, which also owns the Globe, has a 7.3 percent stake in FSG.]

Yet for NESN, the Bruins’ 4-0 Game 7 triumph was shared perhaps a little too much. The network was hoping to raise its profile and ratings in its escalating competition with Comcast SportsNet New England, which, with its hiring of 50 newsroom employees in November 2009 and a significant upgrade in programming, practically shouted that it had the resources and intent to battle NESN for regional sports network supremacy.

Indeed, the battle for viewers that night was more closely contested than the game. When the telecast ended on NBC, Bruins fans who wanted to savor the aftermath held their television remote with several options at their fingertips. Channels 4, 5, and 7 all were on the scene in Vancouver for live coverage. ESPN paid slightly more than its usual cursory attention to the NHL. CSNNE had seven staffers on the scene, including reporters Mike Giardi, Kevin Walsh, and Joe Haggerty, and also benefited from its relationship with Versus and NBC, which are owned by Comcast. NESN devoted nine, though one was play-by-play voice Jack Edwards, who paid his own way to Vancouver when the network would not send him.

Based on its 27-year association with the Bruins alone, NESN should have been the natural destination. The Nielsen ratings suggested the choice wasn’t so apparent after all. NESN earned a 1.7 rating for its 1-hour-45-minute postgame show, while CSNNE earned a 1.6 for its two-hour program. On the night the Bruins won the Cup, NESN earned a ratings victory so narrow that CSNNE viewed it as confirmation that its approach to covering Boston sports is working.

“Having that commitment from viewers is the result of our commitment from a resources, from a money perspective, to devote to all of the local teams, whether we’re airing the live games or not,’’ said Bill Bridgen, CSNNE’s executive vice president and general manager. “The question is never are we going to send somebody or not. The question is always how many people are we going to send and who gets to go.’’

News vs. games Such a question reveals a fundamental difference in philosophy between NESN and CSNNE. Bridgen and Len Mead, who has been CSNNE’s vice president of production and programming since coming over from NESN in April 2010, emphasize that the network is a newsgathering operation first and foremost, no matter whether it carries a particular team’s games. CSNNE has the local broadcast rights to Celtics telecasts, which it held in previous incarnations.

“Our network is built and designed to cover every team in Boston,’’ said Mead. “When the Bruins made their run, we certainly didn’t know they’d win the Stanley Cup, but we knew from the outset that it was an opportunity for us to show what we can do. We started from the very first playoff game.’’

The approach is different at NESN. McGrail repeatedly refers to NESN as a live-event network and notes that it carried more than 300 live games last year, including the Red Sox, Bruins, ACC basketball, Hockey East, and other programming.

“But in the hierarchy of everything, we focus on our pro franchises,’’ he said. “They are what people have proven time and again to be interested in.

“We have such unique access. We’re always thinking about, what would the fan want to know? If the fan could be here, what experience would we create for them? You know, water-cooler talk, did you see that on NESN? We want them asking that the next day.’’

The strategy is effective when the franchises have captured the fan base’s interest. Bruins ratings were up 41 percent from last year during the regular season. And while NESN took its lumps last year when the Red Sox proved a lost cause before the summer was over, as of Tuesday they were averaging a 7.6 household rating in the Boston market this year, up 20 percent through the same number of games last season.

Sometimes, however, such an approach yields another question: Does NESN deliberately focus less attention on the Celtics or Patriots because they are not part of the network’s programming? The network took deserved heat during the 2010 NBA Finals when it did not send a reporter to Los Angeles when the Celtics played the Lakers.

“The Celtics are a terrific franchise, as are the Patriots, and we try to cover those franchises so that viewers will have one-stop shopping,’’ said McGrail. “ ‘NESN Daily’ covers them extensively, and we do it even further over various platforms.’’

Personality differences It remains debatable whether “NESN Daily’’ is anything close to the ideal platform for coverage of Boston sports. Formerly known as “SportsDesk,’’ a perfectly pleasant highlights show, it was reconceived and relaunched in July 2010 as an “issues-oriented’’ show. Joel Feld, then NESN’s executive vice president of programming, said he envisioned it as a “Regis and Kelly’’ of sports. But co-hosts Jade McCarthy and Uri Berenguer lacked chemistry, and Berenguer was let go from the show less than four months after the debut. The show, with McCarthy as host, has reverted to its previous format.

“ ‘NESN Daily’ is an ongoing work in progress,’’ said McGrail. “The show itself has gotten better in the year since we launched. When you’re trying to do something new like that, it’s hard.’’

Innovative programming is something NESN’s competition has done well. CSNNE’s energetic “Quick Slants’’ - hosted by NFL reporter Tom Curran - was an immediate hit, winning a New England Sports Emmy in its first year. The opinion-driven “Sports Tonight’’ and “Sports Sunday,’’ and the news and highlights program “SportsNet Central’’ are consistently entertaining and informative. While ratings for most nongame telecast programs on regional sports networks are spotty – a 1.0 would be considered a strong audience for most CSNNE and NESN programming - as viewers habits progressively shift away from network television, the programs’ viewership is typically trending upward.

Save for the early days of “NESN Daily’’ and its daily three-hour simulcast of WEEI’s “Dennis and Callahan,’’ NESN has rarely attempted opinion-driven programming beyond certain segments of its Bruins and Red Sox pregame and postgame shows. Instead, it has opted for what the network has termed lifestyle programming, intended to give diverse options to fans drawn to the game telecasts. Most have met with lukewarm results. The dating show “Sox Appeal’’ launched in 2007, lasted two seasons before cancellation. Current programs such as “After the Game,’’ a look at Boston athletes away from the field, and “Shining City’’ receive little buzz or viewership.

“This market drives on sports opinion and analysis,’’ Mead said. “You have to take a critical look at what’s going on in the sports marketplace. We try to do that every night.’’

Such an approach works in part because CSNNE has been remarkably successful at finding appealing on-air talent. A. Sherrod Blakely, Carolyn Manno, and Jessica Moran were among those who came aboard from other markets as part of the mass hiring during its revamp in November 2009, and all have had staying power. Giardi, long an underrated presence on New England Cable News, is a standout. Bob Neumeier, whose institutional knowledge of the Boston sports scene was of tremendous value during the Bruins’ run, came aboard in January.

“We look for people who can deliver the news, then tell you the meaning behind it, who can have opinions that matter to this market,’’ Bridgen said.

No one on either network is as opinionated as Michael Felger, whose day job is afternoon drive co-host on 98.5 The Sports Hub. The brash but self-effacing Felger has proven a franchise player for Comcast as the host and chief antagonist on “Sports Tonight’’ and “Sports Sunday.’’

“He is the dominant sports personality in the marketplace, in part on what he’s done with us, but playing in part on what he’s done at The Sports Hub,’’ Mead said.

While NESN has plenty of standouts, from Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy on Red Sox telecasts to vastly underrated studio host Tom Caron to Bruins analyst Andy Brickley, it lacks the roster depth of CSNNE. Popular personalities, most notably Hazel Mae in June 2008, have left in part because of disagreements over salary, and there are indications that more turnover could be ahead.

Bruins studio anchor Kathryn Tappen is expected to depart for the NHL Network in the next couple of weeks; according to an industry source, former Bruins play-by-play voice Dale Arnold is a candidate to replace her. Orsillo has been pursued by TBS, for whom he has done outstanding work calling the baseball postseason the past few seasons. And Red Sox reporter Heidi Watney nearly left after last season but had the option on her three-year contract picked up. Her status for next season remains uncertain.

“All television networks deal with these kinds of issues,’’ McGrail said. “We’ve been fortunate to keep a strong nucleus of talent.’’

For his part, McGrail said his emphasis is on making NESN the best it can be rather than any direct competition with CSNNE.

“If they’re focused on us, I guess that’s a form of flattery,’’ McGrail said. “I’m much more focused on the big-picture market, all of the entertainment options, and how do we get them to NESN every night.’’

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