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NBA Finals Fizzle for Broadcast Network ABC

June 20, 2003

Network ABC suffered the worst ratings for an NBA Finals series since 1981, preliminary results showed on Monday, raising the prospect that the broadcaster will have to give away future advertising time to make up for the audience shortfall.

A fourth-quarter rally led by the league's most valuable player Tim Duncan turned thetide in Sunday's game and sent the San Antonio Spurs to an 88-77 victory over the New Jersey Nets and the NBA championship.

The Nets' loss was also keenly felt by ABC, which was hoping for a seventh game to satisfy advertisers promised strong ratings in earlier games in the series.

Failing that, ABC and ESPN, both owned by Walt Disney Co. , could have to give away free advertising, hurting Disney's quarterly results, analysts said.

The Spurs and the Nets -- two teams with relatively limited national appeal -- were not as effective at drawing fans as the Los Angeles Lakers, which had won the championship the previous three years.

The first four games averaged a rating of 6.3 percent of U.S. households with televisions, 38 percent below last year, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Game five fell to 6.1 on Friday and the final game scored a 9.1 percent preliminary rating although the final rating will probably be lower, because both home towns were represented in the early figures, a spokesman for ABC said.

That would mean the final series average failed to break the double digits for the first time since 1981, when 6.7 percent of television households tuned in to watch the Boston Celtics beat the Houston Rockets.

ABC had said the impact from the low ratings would be "minimal" if there had been a seventh game in the series that would allow it to make up or "make good" on its ratings promises for the early games with air time in the final.

Numbers for young male viewers were much stronger than the household average, and spokesman Mark Mandel said the six-year deal between Disney and the NBA was still good for the company.

ABC is rebuilding its schedule after dropping to place among broadcasters in prime time ratings.

"The Walt Disney Company with the NBA is much stronger on many different levels than it was without," he said. "'Make goods' sometimes happen in the world of sports. The beauty of this deal is that it is long term."

Financial analyst David Miller of Sanders Morris Harris calculated the need to give free advertising on ABC will cost the company a penny per share in earnings this quarter.

"We think it intuitive that Disney was desperately hoping for a seventh game, which did not materialize," he said.