Viewers Take Note of NHL's Strong Post-season

Rash Report: More Tuning In for Hockey's Playoffs

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MINNEAPOLIS ( -- The Rash Report's Minneapolis dateline may bring bias into a column about hockey, as the 10,000 lakes referenced on Minnesota's license plates freeze over from about Halloween to May Day, creating rink rats in the Gopher State. But even Sun Belt scribes reporting from hockey hot spots like Tampa Bay and North Carolina (which witnessed the Lightning and Hurricanes beat teams from blizzard-belt towns Calgary and Edmonton) have heralded the National Hockey League as having sports' best post-season, and wondered when (if ever) viewers will agree.

The Detroit Red Wings took a 2-0 lead after back-to-back 3-1 victories in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Detroit Red Wings took a 2-0 lead after back-to-back 3-1 victories in the Stanley Cup Finals. Credit: AP
Well, the NHL is scoring with U.S. audiences, albeit maybe not to the degree it does with those who watch on "Hockey Night in Canada." Nielsen fast-affiliate ratings (final live-plus-same-day data will be released Tuesday) indicate that games one and two of the Stanley Cup Finals on NBC won with the ad-centric 18-to-49 demographic, with game one just one-tenth of a point below last year's first game, delivering a 1.7/6 rating and share, and game two (2.3/7) up 35%.

(Fox, fighting for some of the same young males who make up the NHL's fan base, finished a close second with a 1.9/6, followed by CBS, 1.3/4; ABC, 1.1/3; and the CW, 0.3/1. Please see the ratings chart for individual show ratings.)

Unlike in some years, the comparisons are truly apples to apples, as this year's final is a rematch of last year's.

The two teams represent towns with story lines that reflect the dominant news narrative, the Great Recession. Detroit's General Motors may have gone into Chapter 11 this morning, but the past two nights its Red Wings have written just the latest chapter in the storied history of a franchise that has won 11 Stanley Cup championships. Their opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins, were themselves bankrupt at one point in the '90s but are characteristic of a city that has transitioned since the last big recession from a hard-bitten steel town to an international city that will host the G20 Summit in September (and it will need to come back on the ice as well, after the Wings took a 2-0 lead following back-to-back 3-1 victories).

Comparatively, the two towns that just made the NBA Finals are literally and figuratively Disnified, as the Orlando Magic are named after Disney World's Magic Kingdom and the Los Angeles Lakers, just up the road from Anaheim's Disneyland, have long featured a style of play dubbed "showtime."

Of course, while NHL ratings are up, they're hardly as high as post-season NFL, NBA, MLB or Nascar and fall below college football and basketball. The sport still seems to be recovering from the disastrous 2004 players strike that contributed to the league getting frozen out of its ESPN carriage.

But hockey has hit on some badly needed media mojo by zigging against other sports' zag. First the NHL and NBC reconnected after the sport's 1970s glory days (when an animated "Peter Puck" explained the finer points of icing and why the Philadelphia Flyers' penalty box needed an extra bench). It wasn't nostalgia on NBC's part, but business. And the revenue-sharing agreement between the league and the network may be a more common model as sports adjust to the new normal of the economy.

Rash chart May 31, 2009Click for PDF
See how all the shows did in the ratings.

Next was establishing a New Year's Day tradition of playing outdoor games in the same stadiums that house higher-rated sports such as baseball. The first was an instant classic, won by Penguins star Sidney Crosby in overtime in front of 72,000 fans in a Buffalo snowstorm. The 1.4/5 was a surprise and even beat the Gator Bowl (1.1/4) on CBS, although ABC's Capital One Bowl (4.9/16) won the time slot. This year, ratings jumped to a 1.7/6, as the Red Wings beat the Blackhawks in baseball's iconic Wrigley Field.

Most important, in an era of doping and dopey athletes behaving badly, many of the NHL players, perhaps perceiving the challenges of making Canada's national pastime America's, are actually pretty good with the media, and with the fans. Many of the European players are better with English than we native speakers, and many of the rest are just small-town Canadian kids. After all, if you're from Medicine Hat, Alberta, it's hard to get a big head, no matter how good you are.

Monday: Program premieres bring out the best and worst of NBC, all in one night. First, at 8 p.m., I'm a viewer ... get me out of here! "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!" is yet another reality show casting has-beens and never-weres and features as its big "get" former Illinois first lady Patti Blagojevich, wife of impeached Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Then, at 11:30 p.m. NBC's Conan O'Brien, an example of the true TV talent often obscured by celebrity reality shows, takes the "Tonight Show" desk from Jay Leno, ushering a new era in late-night TV.
Tuesday: Catch 'em while you can: With the Red Wings holding the Penguins to just two goals in two games, the next two games on Versus may be the last in the Stanley Cup Finals.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Ratings for week two of "Jon and Kate Plus Eight," which set records for last week's season premiere as inferred infidelity caused a tabloid sensation.

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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)

John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see

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