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Chilly reception

NBC has NHL's Winter Classic in tough TV time slot

Posted: Tuesday January 1, 2008 7:24AM; Updated: Tuesday January 1, 2008 7:24AM
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The NHL in a football stadium is a cool idea, but the game will likely get hosed in the TV ratings department on a classic pigskin day.
The NHL in a football stadium is a cool idea, but the game will likely get hosed in the TV ratings department on a classic pigskin day.
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Sidney Crosby and Tim Tebow were born seven days apart in 1987. One man owns a Hart Trophy, the other a Heisman. Both will play on Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. and we won't ask where your television loyalties stand, mostly because we like the people in the NHL's public relations department.

Last week, NBC held a conference call to hype its coverage of the NHL Winter Classic, which features Crosby's Penguins skating against the Sabres at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium in the league's first regular-season outdoor game in the United States. Unfortunately for NBC and the NHL, Florida and Michigan are meeting in the Capital One Bowl on ABC during the same broadcast window. That's a small problem akin to drawing Roger Federer at Wimbledon.

"The Capital One Bowl consistently receives viewer support," said ESPN-on- ABC spokesperson Mike Humes. "While we normally do not make specific estimates, with these two popular teams, we expect another solid audience." (Television-speak translation: We're going to kill you, NBC).

You can understand ESPN's optimism. Florida and Michigan are major TV draws; and each has a rabid alumni base that is roughly the size of Argentina. If fans want another football option, CBS's Gator Bowl coverage of No. 25 Texas Tech against No. 20 Virginia also begins at 1 p.m.

When the issue of ratings came up last week, NBC executives predictably offered sunshine for the Ice Bowl. "We let ratings take care of themselves," said executive producer Sam Flood. "We think it's a pretty exciting option when you turn on your TV and see this spectacle that will be on the ice. We think it will be tough to turn away."

This presumes, of course, that a non-hardcore hockey fan will actually tune in at any point. If a gimmick game, albeit a very cool gimmick game with 73,000 people on hand, turns out to be a ratings disappointment, one wonders if there is anything that can prompt the casual American sports fan to check out hockey on the tube.

"I think it would be a huge leap to go from one hockey game on Jan. 1 to say nothing can draw the audience," counters Flood. "If you have a New York Rangers-Detroit Red Wings Stanley Cup Final, I guarantee you will get the casual fan."

NBC is certainly treating the Classic like a major event and deservedly so. The network is bringing a crew of 40 to Buffalo, and Flood said they'll have 24 cameras set up at Ralph Wilson, one more than normal for NBC's Stanley Cup coverage. The extra camera? The one in the airplane.

"You want to see the spectacle, the size and scope of it, so an airplane will be taking aerial shots while flying over the stadium, and we'll cover part of the game from it," said Flood. "I expect to see a replay of one of the goals from the airplane, which will be a first."

Flood said the perfect television visuals would include "a light dusting, and little flurries that would happen on and off." Adding a new chapter to the distinguished canon of sideline reporting, NBC has hired Bill Karins of Weather Plus to report on the rinkside weather. (We're just thankful Al Roker didn't attempt to strong-arm his way into this assignment).

The NHL's first outdoor game -- the Heritage Classic on Nov. 22, 2003 at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium between the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens -- drew a crowd of 57,167 and record TV ratings in Canada. CBC's coverage attracted an average audience of 2.747 million viewers. That ranks as the second-highest average audience for a regular-season game on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada.

Those folks will be on hand in Buffalo, too, and Crosby will wear a microphone for them during the afternoon. NBC, meanwhile, will bring in one of its major talents for the event. The network spent a majority of its press call trumpeting that Bob Costas would be hosting the coverage of the Winter Classic. Though his appearance won't draw additional viewers, Costas is a welcome addition and adds to the big-game atmosphere.

While a senior at Syracuse, the broadcaster spent a year (1973-74) calling the Syracuse Blazers of the North American Hockey League. He said he was paid $30 per game and $5 for meal money. (Here's guessing his compensation is slightly more for this game.) Costas said Flood asked him to host this event, carrying a request from NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman also signed off on the assignment.

"It took me about five seconds to say yes because it's within what I look at as my role at NBC," said Costas. "I think people are comfortable with the idea that if there is a big event on NBC, that I might be the one to come on and set the stage. It implicitly says that NBC considers this to be something of significance, that it's not your everyday hockey game, and it isn't. They didn't have to twist my arm. I think it's cool."

Costas is right. It is cool. But will anyone watch against Tebow and Big Blue?