Did David Stern Really bring the NBA Finals out of Tape Delay?

Ty Willinganz is a graduate from University of Wisconsin (BA Advanced Economics/Government) University of Minnesota Law (Juris Doctorate) Business Lawyer and In-House Counsel for a Paper and Green Energy company in Green Bay Wisconsin (and for those who need help with the LSAT, Ty also teaches an LSAT Preparation Seminars in the Spring and Fall).

Readers of the Wages of Wins Journal hopefully remember that Ty used to blog at Bucks Diary (which eventually moved to MVN.com) and CourtSideAnalyst. Ty developed a variant of Wins Produced (mentioned in Stumbling on Wins) and often provided very similar analysis to what is seen here and at BoxScoreGeeks. 

Currently you can follow Ty at Twitter @tywillinganz.  And today you can read Ty’s analysis of why the television broadcast of the NBA Finals changed (and it is not what you have read!)

In this post, I mean to debunk a consistently repeated but entirely misleading accomplishment attributed to the David Stern Era as NBA Commissioner.  The “accomplishment” I mean to challenge is that David Stern’s actions or policies caused the broadcast networks to change their established policies and broadcast NBA Finals games live during prime time hours.  You will often hear this accomplishment  stated by ESPN heads and Radio Boys in this manner:

“Before David Stern, the NBA Finals were broadcast on tape delay and were not played until 11:30 at night — AFTER JOHNNY CARSON!!! David Stern made the NBA Finals a prime time event.”

The above statement is a matter of fact, but the attribution itself is highly misleading.

Yes, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, CBS Television chose to broadcast several NBA Finals games on a tape delay basis, particularly when those Finals games were scheduled to be played on a weeknight.  And yes, during David Stern’s tenure as commissioner of the NBA, this practice ended and all NBA Finals games after 1982 were broadcast live during prime time viewing hours.

However, I would argue that those two occurrences were not any surge in NBA popularity or any policy initiative of David Stern’s, but rather they were function of the (1) a change in the NBA playoff format after the 1981-82 season that moved the NBA Finals backward and out of conflict with important dates in the established practices of the television industry.  There is little or no evidence to suggest that any action of David Stern or any alleged surge in NBA popularity during the Stern Era caused the television networks to change their scheduling practices.

THE MERRY MERRY MONTH OF MAY (WHEN THE NBA WAS NOT WANTED IN PRIME TIME)

Prior to the 1981-82 season, the NBA play-offs were set up in such a way that the NBA Finals were always scheduled to occur and complete themselves sometime in the early to middle part of May.  Unfortunately for the NBA and its then broadcast partner CBS, May, and particular the early to middle part of May, is one of the most sacrosanct times in the television season.  May is one of the months designated by the Nielsen Ratings folks as a “Sweeps” month – a month which the Nielsen Ratings system calculates the ratings averages that are used to set the commercial prices for the networks.

Particularly in the pre-cable era of the 1970s, and to a lesser extent during the early cable days of the 1980s, pre-empting scheduled network programming during weeknight prime time hours for programming of decidedly lesser ratings appeal (eg the NBA Finals) would have gotten any network executive who would have been stupid enough to do it fired.  Thus, they would not and did not do it.

But, you might argue, the 1970s were the days of “cocaine” and “fighting” and the unpopular NBA.  Surely network executives would have been more than willing to preempt the May Sweeps for a game between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.  You might think that.  I would argue that you would be wrong.  Or, at least, the numbers tell a different story (to paraphrase David Berri).

“BIRD AND MAGIC” vs. “BILL COSBY AND SAM MALONE” (AN UNFAIR FIGHT)

The 1984 NBA Finals were the first Finals to feature the two teams headlined by the rising young stars of the moment, Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics, and Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers. They must have been a ratings bonanza, right?  Not really.

The 1984 Finals (which I am old enough to remember vividly as one of the greatest Finals ever) scored a Nielsen Rating of 12.5.  Compared to the ratings rankings of the prime time season that ended the month before during the 1984 May Sweeps, those ratings… in a word… sucked.

A look at the Nielsen Ratings for prime time shows broadcast during the 1983-84 television season reveals that such a rating would not have landed Bird and Magic among the top 50 shows!! Thusly, I would venture to guess that if the NBA Finals between Bird and Magic had been played in May of 1984, they would not have been broadcast by CBS in prime time, despite the star power of the Lakers and Celtics.

THOSE LAZY HAZY CRAZY DAYS OF SUMMER (WHEN NO ONE WATCHES TELEVISION)

After the playoffs expanded in the 1981-82 season, the NBA Finals were pushed back in the calendar to late May and June.  June is part of the “summer drag” in which the former Big 3 networks chose not to premiere new episodes and instead devoted to reruns and awful specialty programs (the “Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour”).  When the NBA schedule moved backwards into June, voila… there was plenty of Prime Time availability and I will bet the NBA scored comparatively well up against reruns of the Dukes of Hazzard.

So, yes, Commissioner David Stern did preside over an era in which it became standard practice to air all NBA Finals games live and in prime time, but I think it is wrong to imply that this change was brought about by any alleged rise in the popularity of the Association or by any policy initiated by Stern.  Instead, I think the record makes it clear that the NBA got itself in prime time when it got out of the way of the all-important May Nielsen Sweeps.  Sorry  Mr. Stern.

- Ty Willinganz

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