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            Networks meet challenge to find compelling sports programming

            Photo of Pete Dougherty
            Pete Dougherty, Sports Media

            Not since the infant days of ESPN have networks been so starved for sports programming. (Older readers may remember a 1979 diet of slow-pitch softball, rodeos, billiards and reruns — lots and lots of reruns.)

            With all sports leagues shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, hours and days and weeks of telecast windows that were earmarked for live games suddenly need to be filled.

            "The challenge is that now we need to replicate that dynamic 24 hours a day, seven days a week across multiple networks," Burke Magnus, ESPN's executive vice president for programming, said in a recent ESPN Front Row interview. "That's what is in front of us in terms of long-range planning."

            At least in the early going, finding a theme for a particular night or week seems to be the way to go.

            Throughout April, ESPN has designated Mondays for re-airs of NFL games. Tuesdays are for Major League Baseball, Wednesday for NBA, and Thursday for college football (except for April 23, when it will be wall-to-wall live coverage of the NFL draft).

            CBS and CBS Sports Network have gone deep into their inventory of men's basketball NCAA Tournament games.

            NBC Sports Network has adopted theme weeks. It started two weeks ago with "Hockey Week In America," followed by "Football Week in America" (NFL) and "Racing Week in America" (cars, not horses). The next two weeks will feature Olympics programming.

            "These theme weeks give us a way to lean into our partners and the sports we love so much," NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood said on a conference call. "Obviously we've got other things in our saddlebag like Olympics and championship seasons that we'll lean into coming up. We don't know how long, so in the interim we're thinking of new ideas, new ways to engage people."

            You will see plenty of Masters-related programming this week on CBS and Golf Channel. Golf's first major championship was scheduled for this week in Augusta, Ga., and now has been rescheduled for Nov. 12-15.

            NFL Network and MLB Network, owned by the leagues they represent, have shown a lot of "classic" games, an avenue not available to all networks. MLB Network trots out "Carlton Fisk Day" on Friday. Earlier in the week, it was "Ron Guidry Day," "Walk-Off Wednesday" and a Tuesday tribute to Al Kaline, who died on Monday.

            "Re-airing full-game presentations is not a right that we or other media companies typically have at our disposal at all times," Magnus said. "Each one of these circumstances requires individual conversations with the specific league or property to determine what's possible. We are working with the leagues themselves to free up the possibility to show encore presentations and discussing how we can present them."

            Ratings aren't nearly as high as live programming would be, but they aren't bad. After all, most Americans are quarantined in their 体彩app官方网站s.

            "On NBC on the weekends, our golf re-airs have done very well," Flood said. "This weekend will be the first weekend of the NHL playoffs, and we're going to go back and take what usually are three-hour windows for a single hockey game and split it into two playoff games, so we're just looking at everything that we do a little bit differently to try and engage."

            Fox was the first to incorporate esports competition into its program grid, showing NASCAR iRacing the past three Sundays. The average audience has been 1.2 million (the past two were Fox/Fox Sports 1 simulcasts). By comparison, last year's NASCAR Cup actual race from Bristol on a similar weekend drew 2.8 million on FS1.

            There is no NASCAR iRacing this Sunday because of Easter, although NBCSN will have a live IndyCar iRacing event at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at a virtual Michigan International Speedway. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who retired from NASCAR and is an NBC racing analyst, will participate.

            If the dry period of sports extends into the summer, the 1979 slow-pitch softball footage is still available.

            Pete Dougherty is the Times Union's sports TV/radio columnist pdougherty@体彩app官方网站 518-454-5416 @体彩app官方网站Pete_Dougherty