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NBC Sports Chicago falling victim to changes on media landscape

The network has been forced to make some difficult decisions at the behest of parent company NBCUniversal, which has reorganized, tightened its belt and consolidated wherever it can.

NBC Sports Chicago might be the home of the Blackhawks, Bulls and White Sox, but it sadly isn’t the home to a growing number of former employees.

The departures began in August with host Leila Rahimi and part-time host Laurence Holmes. They were the most visible faces locally in a round of layoffs that spanned NBC Sports Group’s regional networks and included others here behind the scenes. Rahimi landed on her feet at The Score, where Holmes continues to host, as well.

More cuts came last week, when Bears insider J.J. Stankevitz, Bears writer Cam Ellis and Hawks writer Scott King were let go. Their work mostly appeared on NBCSCH’s digital platforms, which had received an influx of resources not long ago.

In fact, they were part of a larger strategy executed by senior vice president and general manager Kevin Cross that emphasized live game coverage, including pregame and postgame shows, and a digital presence when there was no game. The channel saw results in October with its most traffic ever at nbcsportschicago.com, despite having no games to air that month.

But NBCSCH has been forced to make some difficult decisions at the behest of parent company NBCUniversal, which has reorganized its management structure, tightened its spending and consolidated wherever it can. It’s taking a toll on NBCSCH’s tightly knit crew and creating a chasm between the regional sports network and the national network.

The industry saw changes coming to NBCUniversal when Jeff Shell was named CEO last January. But the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the situation, as has the company’s shift in focus from linear TV, which is suffering from cord-cutting, to its streaming service, Peacock.

That was behind the decision to close NBCSN at the end of the year and move sports programming to Peacock and USA Network. The shift will turn the latter into NBC’s version of Turner’s TBS and TNT, which charge distributors more for carriage because they air sports in addition to entertainment.

Those are sound decisions, but an even more far-reaching one for NBCUniversal parent company Comcast would be to shed its RSNs, which aren’t the moneymakers they once were. Industry insiders think that if Comcast could find a buyer — there isn’t one — it would sell them in a heartbeat.

Fox saw the writing on the wall and dumped its 21 RSNs, which ended up with Sinclair and already are no longer worth their cost. Sinclair, which rebranded the channels this week as Bally Sports (yes, the casino), paid $9.6 billion for them in August 2019. In November, the broadcast group wrote down their value by $4.23 billion. (Sinclair also shares ownership of Marquee Sports Network with the Cubs.)

Put it all together, and you can see why NBC is cutting and NBCSCH is stewing.

Viewers tuning in to NBCSCH for games won’t notice a difference in production quality, which is a testament to the people who work there. Those close to the company speak of its family feel, some of which has been chipped away because of the layoffs. They’re also concerned about more layoffs and what some perceive as a meddling parent.

The digital side is reeling from hits to its Bears coverage, which is year-round, and its Hawks coverage, which was just getting started for the season. That side thought it was on solid footing with the hires of K.C. Johnson from the Chicago Tribune (Bulls), Gordon Wittenmyer from the Chicago Sun-Times (Cubs) and Adam Hoge of WGN Radio (Bears and Sox). But the pandemic forced unfortunate changes.

NBCSCH won’t suffer the fate of NBCSN. The Chicago channel has multiyear contracts with its teams. But it’s operating in a new corporate environment. Last Friday, the same day of NBCSCH’s latest round of layoffs, NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations emailed an internal memo explaining its consolidation with the company’s seven RSNs to create efficiencies and operate as one entity.

That included the departure of communications director Jeff Nuich, who had been at NBCSCH when it was SportsChannel, Fox Sports Net and Comcast SportsNet. He’d seen it all. Now the corporate office will run communications for the local RSN.

On Wednesday, NBC Sports Group chairman Pete Bevacqua held a call with employees companywide, saying that its long-term prospects were strong and that it’s being aggressive at a time other networks aren’t. He emphasized the group’s commitment to sports and its positioning for greater exposure, citing the upcoming shift to USA.

But the pep talk won’t make the changes any easier for NBCSCH.

REMOTE PATROL

Wolves games won’t be available on local TV this season because they’ll be played at the team’s training facility, Triphahn Ice Arena, in Hoffman Estates. The building doesn’t have the infrastructure to accommodate a broadcast. Fans won’t be allowed in.

The Wolves have been on local TV for the last 19 seasons and figure to return next season. Fans can watch all 30 of their regular-season games on AHLTV.com for $34.99. Subscriptions can be purchased on the website. Wolves season-ticket holders can receive a discount.

  • Michael Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ executive vice president, head of strategy and analytics guru, tweeted this week that he’s predicting Kansas City will break the record for the highest Super Bowl TV rating in one market. That belongs to Chicago, which recorded a 63 for Bears-Patriots in Super Bowl XX. The Bills-Chiefs AFC title game Sunday rated at 61.9.