Back on the USA Network: Sports return with NHL playoffs

NEW YORK (AP) In the three decades since USA Network had last broadcast an NHL playoff game, just about everything in television watching changed.

In that rapidly evolving world, the cable channel is again embracing the value of sports.

USA aired two games as hockey’s postseason opened this week, with more coverage planned Tuesday and Wednesday nights in the early rounds.

”This is the right move for USA at this time,” said Chris McCumber, the network’s president.

Back in the 1980s, USA was an early cable home for big-time sports, from Major League Baseball to the NBA to college football. But since losing its rights to the Masters and U.S. Open tennis toward the end of the last decade, USA has lacked a regular sports presence – depending on one’s definition of WWE.

Either way, it’s the big audiences for ”Monday Night Raw” that prove the appeal of live events for USA. Across the TV dial, networks have been turning to sports because viewers are far less likely to DVR them – and therefore more likely to see the ads. Competitors TNT and TBS have expanded their sports offerings in recent years.

”Live programming is one of the most valuable commodities you can have,” McCumber said.

As part of NBCUniversal, USA is still a key channel for the company’s Olympic coverage. NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke said on a Comcast earnings call in October that ”you could see us taking some of our existing sports that are on other channels and putting them on USA.”

That is what’s happening during the NHL playoffs. Cable sports channel NBCSN is the main home of the early rounds, but additional games had been aired on CNBC. USA took over some of those matchups this year.

McCumber said it was too soon to say whether USA would again pursue sports rights on its own, separate from a broader NBC effort.

For USA, and for the NHL and NBC Sports, the attraction is to reach new viewers. USA was the country’s most popular cable network last week in prime time, averaging 1.61 million viewers, and is in more than 102 million U.S. homes, a broader reach than NBCSN.

”To be able to touch that audience and get them to get a taste of the NHL, we think that’s a huge advantage for the league and for us,” NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood said.

Wednesday night’s game between the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals averaged 555,000 viewers on USA, up 23 percent from the 450,000 for Montreal-Tampa Bay on CNBC in the same slot a year ago.

The second matchup Wednesday was between two Canadian teams, Calgary and Vancouver, and averaged 307,000 viewers, down 21 percent from Dallas-Anaheim on NBCSN last season.

Beyond the overall audience size, USA is after the demographics of the NHL fan base: a younger, more male viewership to pitch some of its new shows to.

”You have to find niches of audiences that are more likely to watch those shows,” McCumber said.