With this week representing a watershed time in the sports media, AA is sitting down with executives from various cable sports networks for an open forum on their progress and standing in the sports world.  Today I spoke with Jon Miller, President of Programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN.  Miller has been a driving force in the many rights deals NBC has struck with Formula 1, the English Premier League, and NASCAR among others and the remaking of Versus into NBCSN.

When NBC Sports Network launched on January 2, 2012 many observers thought it would become an immediate challenger to ESPN's long held grip as the #1 sports network in the land.  Instead of taking on Bristol directly though, NBCSN has looked to acquire sports rights with smaller, passionate fanbases and own the market for the Olympics, hockey, motorsports, and now the EPL.  

In spite of adding popular personalities like Dan Patrick and Michelle Beadle though, NBCSN has found it difficult to draw viewers to the network's studio programming.  NBCSN has seen its lineup shuffled with shows like NBC Sports Talk being jettisoned in favor of the new SportsDash with Yahoo Sports and The Crossover being retooled.  In many ways, NBCSN is still a work in progress although in the world of 24/7 sports it seems like it's been around forever.

I discussed with Jon Miller what areas he's been pleased with in the 19 months NBCSN has been on the air and what areas still needed work, why the EPL is so integral to NBCSN's future, whether he'll make a serious push for the NBA, what will ultimately make NBCSN a success, and what one word he would use to describe NBC Sports.  And no, it isn't "fun."

Matt Yoder: Since NBC Sports Network launched almost 2 years ago what's one area you're happy with in the network's early stages and one area you'd like to grow further?

Jon Miller: I'm really excited about a lot of the programming acquisitions and development we've made.  The way we've grown the NHL and the recent acquisitions of the Premier League which launches this weekend and NASCAR which launches in 2015.  We're excited about the way the network looks, the quality of production, the way the network has been repositioned, rebranded, as well as adding Formula One we think we've made some real strong progress there.

As far as one area to improve, clearly the original programming area is a challenge that we continue to work on.  We've had some successes with shows like NFL Turning Point.  We recently did a show called Shark Hunters that was very well received.  But we continue to work hard to develop that original studio programming that we know is very important to the success of a 24/7 cable network.

MY: What are you looking to do to draw more viewers to those studio programs so that NBCSN becomes a destination for sports fans?

JM: We're constantly looking at new opportunities.  We're launching a new program called SportsDash powered by Yahoo on Monday which will be hosted by Carolyn Manno and Dave Briggs which we're very excited about because we think it'll be different than your regular studio show in that we're using a lot of analytics Yahoo brings to the table on the topics and interests that are trending.  

Clearly we're going to surround our rights-driven programming with strong original programming.  For example, the Premier League will have multiple games on Saturday and Match of the Day Saturday night, Sunday night will have Match of the Day II.  We've built strong original programming around the NHL with our NHL Live shows and the NHL studio programming we have.  Then of course Pro Football Talk, which for the NFL fan is a great destination.  We think we're on the right track there.

MY: Is there a sustained strategy in acquiring sports like the EPL, F1, NASCAR, or the NHL that may have smaller, more passionate fanbases that may not be served right now by other networks?

JM: Those sports do have passionate fanbases that are growing and continuing to get stronger.  One of the unique things about those properties is that they're exclusive to the NBC platform.  While we share NASCAR with Fox when it's our portion of the season from July-November we're the place to come for NASCAR.  We're the place to come for the Premier League.  We're the place to come for all NHL content.  The same thing with the Olympics and Formula 1.  When you have the opportunity to own those sports exclusively and vertically integrate them through your different platforms (cable, network digital) we think that's where we can really maximize value.

MY: As a soccer fan, when NBC's EPL plans came out it was stunning to see the amount of hours committed to the league, not just in live games but studio programming.  Why invest so much in the EPL as integral to NBCSN's future?

JM: That was part of our promise and mission to the Premier League when we made our presentation.  We were going to put the Premier League on a level they had not seen in this country.  ESPN and Fox had done a great job with the EPL until this past year but we thought we were uniquely positioned to bring a lot more to the table when we had the morning windows as well as a broadcast network for Saturday afternoon and Championship Sunday where all 10 games will be on linear networks on May 11th.  

We had opportunities to do really unique things with shoulder programming whether it be Match of the Day or GoalZone or Manchester Mondays.  Our feeling was to be the network of the Premier League.  The other thing that's unique is there are 380 games and if you're a Premier League fan you're going to be able to watch all those games at no additional charge whether it be Premier League Extra Time or on your laptop, iPhone, or tablet through NBC Live Extra.  You're going to be able to see every game live in its entirety in HD at no additional charge.  That's never been done before with a major professional sport in this country.

MY: This is a big week in the industry obviously, with so much competition and sports in the 24/7 marketplace right now how would you best describe NBCSN's status in that marketplace at the moment?

JM: I would equate us to a very hungry, well funded startup that has made some real progress in 2 years and continues to grow.  We're still very early on in our growth curve and have made a lot of changes from what Versus was.  We're very excited about what lies ahead of us, we've made great strides.  We have a leading production group led by Sam Flood and his team, Pierre Moossa on soccer is going to be tremendous, what Tommy Roy does with golf, Fred Gaudelli with the NFL – we're blessed to have a great production team and that comes through loud and clear in all of our broadcasts.

MY: Will we see more top events move from broadcast to cable to further bolster NBCSN?  Perhaps more prime Olympic programming or Notre Dame football?

JM: We have the opportunity in our new long term deal to move some Notre Dame games over to NBC Sports Network.  There are no plans to do it for 2013 but we evaluate each season with our partners in South Bend and we'll take a look.  There's an enormous amount of Olympic programming live on NBC Sports Network as you saw from London and we'll do something similar from Sochi.  Our new NASCAR deal has 20 Sprint Cup races of which a majority of those are on NBCSN, and the same thing with the Nationwide series.  With the Premier League we have the balance on NBC Sports Network so we're very cognizant of that.  I think we've worked really well together using both assets (broadcast and cable) and maximizing both assets.

MY: You mentioned the words "well funded" and of course NBC just spent $4 billion dollars on NASCAR.  What are your ambitions to acquire other live sports rights knowing there's not too much out there over the next decade in terms of premier packages.  Will you take a serious look at pursuing the NBA or the Big Ten for example?

JM: The safest way to answer that is we always look at opportunities when they become available.  We have a long, rich history with the NBA and if the opportunity became available we'd certainly have conversations with them.  There are other properties that will come out in the college world too.

We've done 16 major acquisitions since the merger happened in 2011 so we've been very inquisitive, we have a company that understands the value of sports and quality sports television and we will continue to be aggressive and make good, smart deals when the opportunities are there.

MY: What would constitute NBCSN becoming a success in 5 years time?  Increased ratings, awareness, or distribution?  More live sports rights?  What would make you say, "yes, this network has made it"?

JM: I think it's a combination of all those things, Matt.  We want to be part of the sports fan's everyday conversation.  I know we're a part of the NHL fan's everyday conversation.  I know we'll be the default channel for soccer fans starting Saturday.  In motorsports we're going to be the only network with NASCAR, F1 and IndyCar, and we're going to be around for a long time in that business.  

We want fans to look at NBC and NBCSN as a place they can go to get quality programming that's well produced that treats the sport and the fan with great respect and a place people want to go to consume their sports.

MY: If you could summarize NBCSN and NBC Sports' philosophy in one word what would it be?  Fun, perhaps?

JM: No it would not be fun. (Laughs)  We're good storytellers but I think more than that we want to be known as an authentic sports brand.  People who watch us whether it be golf, football, hockey, soccer, or you name it they will say "NBC is an authentic sports brand and does an unbelievable job in producing and delivering a product."  That's part of our legacy and that will never change.

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