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the usual suspects

The NHL, NFL and NBA seasons start this month. That makes it like Christmas every day for sports fans. Sports broadcasters have a holiday feeling as well, despite a challenging economy. The introduction of portable people meters (PPM) to the business of calculating TV ratings has many in sports TV and radio giddy with anticipation.

After all, sports leagues and broadcasters have long felt that the traditional methods of assessing their audiences used by Nielsen, the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement and other services underestimated their true numbers.

The thinking went that devices kept by families were skewed to women's tastes rather than men's. Or that listeners to sports radio in their cars were not properly reflected in the numbers that determine ratings. Or that the ratings did not account for large numbers of people who gathered to watch sporting events. No one leaves home to watch House or Mad Men, they point out, but many people go out to watch sports.

As such, viewership of programs such as Hockey Night In Canada or CFL football was thought to be underestimated. With ratings driving advertising dollars, that was a serious concern for broadcasters.

The PPM system has been tried in Quebec and other markets already. Perhaps most exciting for broadcasters such as TSN, CBC, Sportsnet and sports radio stations in those tests is that, for the first time, the data contain "out-of-home" viewing and viewing by wives, girlfriends, friends and kids at the same time.

If, for instance, people watch a TV program with the volume on for more than a minute in an electronics store, that will be relayed to the ratings companies. (People watching with the sound off in a bar do not count, however.)

The sports broadcast universe is expected to expand considerably. The first numbers have not disappointed broadcasters.

"We're really excited with the initial PPM ratings that we're seeing in sports," says Scott Moore, vice-president of CBC Sports. "My prediction is that HNIC will become a top 10, top 15 program every week, and that it will become a must-buy for advertisers. We think that, what was an audience of 1.2 million last year, will go up to maybe 1.5 million, although some people say it might get as high as two million each week."

TSN president Phil King is equally effusive about the potential of the early numbers he's seen for the network's football, tennis and auto racing programming.

"But we need to be cautious," King says, "because the real numbers may differ somewhat when all the data come in in six to eight weeks. As well, we have to see how other formats do under the new system. If everyone gains, then the net effect won't be as significant as we first think."

Nelson Millman, program director for Toronto's Fan 590, sees parallels in sports radio after looking at numbers from the summer book, the first real test.

"We're excited, but it could take six to eight months before it shakes out as real data," Millman says. "It will be more accurate. So far, all the boats floated up with the tide in the summer book. There could still be losers in sports if meters don't get into the hands of people who listen to sports.

"There's a feeling that men and the younger demographic might still be underrepresented. And in the U.S., some ethnic radio formats that did well under the diary system haven't done as well under [people meters]"

Still, expect to see record numbers announced for all your favourite TV sports attractions in the next year.

Sorry, No Time

It was a U.S. Open to forget for CBS. Weather problems pushed the men's final into Monday, the women's final flopped in the ratings, Serena Williams threatened to give a lineswoman a tennis-ball sandwich, then veteran announcer Dick Enberg insulted the Spanish-speaking world in the winner's ceremony. Enberg was hustling winner Juan Martin del Potro through a series of scripted product placements when the young Argentine asked to say a few words in Spanish.

A harried Enberg cut him off at the knees by saying there was no time. Considering he'd had plenty of time for loser Roger Federer, Enberg's remark appeared even more left-footed. While del Potro eventually had the time for a few words in Spanish, the moment went over like a lead balloon.

CBS leapt to Enberg's defence, saying he'd been ordered by producers to hurry the ceremony so the network could get to the next stirring episode of How Two-And-A-Half-Men Met Old Christine In the Big Big Theory. But the damage was done for America's 35 million-plus Spanish speakers and those around the globe. Almost makes you pine for the days of Johnny Mac sweet talking the umpires.

Awkward

Prime Time Sports unwittingly used a clip of Mary Travers, who'd died that day, singing If I Had a Hammer in its opening Thursday. Meanwhile, Bob McCown continues to simmer after his heated set-to with fellow Fan 590 bingo caller Doug MacLean last week. McCown vows that MacLean is dead to him for dissing him on his own show.

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