Sunday, April 19, 2015

NBC Sports president of programming Jon Miller on the network's Premier League debut

I consider myself quite fortunate to have gotten to know NBC Sports president of programming Jon Miller fairly well over the last few years. He talks honestly and in detail, and doesn't hide from the public's reactions to his company's work.

NBC Sports president of programming Jon Miller on the network's Premier League debut

(Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com)
(Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com)

Heads up: this one's long. Not as long as the main story, but this one gets pretty deep.

STAMFORD, Conn. - I consider myself quite fortunate to have gotten to know NBC Sports president of programming Jon Miller fairly well over the last few years. He talks honestly and in detail, and doesn't hide from the public's reactions to his company's work.

Over the course of the interviews I've done with him, I think he's given you a lot of insight into the ways in which he views soccer's present and future as a television property. The latest conversation came on Saturday at NBC Sports Group's headquarters in Stamford, Conn., where an invited group of media watched the opening day of NBC's Premier League coverage.

During halftime of the Swansea City-Manchester United game, Miller met the press for an extensive Q&A. Here's a transcript of the key parts.

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Comcast responds to criticism over Premier League Extra Time problems
 
NBC Sports president of programming Jon Miller on the network's Premier League debut
 
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Q&A with NBC Sports Premier League studio host Rebecca Lowe
 
Q&A with NBC Sports Premier League studio analyst Robbie Mustoe
 
Q&A with NBC Sports Premier League studio analyst Robbie Earle

In the big picture, how do you think today went?

Today was a day that I had circled on the calendar from the time I got the phone call back in October that [NBC had won the rights]. August 17th was like this date that was way out there in the future. Last night when I went to bed and set my alarm for 5:00, I said, "I can't believe it's finally here."  And you don't know what to expect.

The one thing I did know - the one thing I had total confidence in - was that Pierre Moossa and his team, and Mike Meehan and Dave Mazza and Dan Steir and Sam Flood, all the operations people, all that stuff would be tremendous. I knew that the guys on site at the game would do a great job. I had no concerns whatsoever that we were going to put the best possible product on the air.

I had concerns about whether or not some [pay-TV providers]* would figure out Extra Time, and would get that to work okay. I knew that Live Extra was going to be out there, but I knew that sometimes people who are new to that program have trouble navigating and finding it. Those are the little things I was worried about.

But that has all worked out well. The games were seamless. The commercial interruptions were limited. Nobody thought it was cluttered, which was our goal as well. So I would say it was a great day. And this was as much a team effort as you could ever hope to have. Everybody in this company had some role in what went on today.

* - The word Miller actually used was "MVPDs." That's an abbreviation for "multi-channel video programming distributors." You'll see that phrase again in the transcript.

You mentioned that you had some worries coming in about how the pay-TV providers would do with Extra Time and Live Extra. How satisfied are you with the state of things right now?

I think that's the one area we want to continue to focus on. DirecTV was terrific. I was talking to people earlier today who were watching games on there, who were watching games on Cablevision, who saw games on Cox. The Live Extra stuff worked really well.

We still have a ways to go with some of them. But I think over time - we're delivering all the games. Every game is being delivered to every MVPD in high-def. Once it gets to that MVPD, it's up to them how they're going to make sure they distribute it.

And it's incumbent upon fans and consumers to tell their MVPD, "Hey, we know you're getting these games, and we want to be able to see them. Please make it easy for us."

Is that one of your biggest challenges with this, getting the message to the consumer about where to take a complaint?

Yeah, but I think that's one of the great things that our PR folks and digital and social folks are doing, as well as the people who are in affiliate sales and distribution. They are making sure people know not to call us.

I thought we'd have a lot more calls here. We haven't gotten many. All the calls are going to the different [pay-tv] operators, and it's up to them to make sure their customer service representatives know how to deliver the correct message.

You have been directly involved with some of those conversations, though. One example was when Comcast customers started complaining  on Twitter about not being able to watch games truly live through Xfinity on Demand. You were out there making phone calls to let people know what was going on.

We really do care. It's really important. There are too many people who are working too hard on this. When these things happen, you have to address them. You can't just say you'll take care of it on Monday morning. If we can, we're going to try to address it right now.

At what point did you realize the true scale of broadcasting the Premier League at the level to which NBC has committed?

I think as we were putting our plans together for our bid last September and we started to lay out what the different programming scenarios could be, and what the real reach and potential of the property could achieve, I think that's when we started to realize just how big an undertaking it would be.

You've developed quite a personal affinity for soccer. When and how did that start?

I grew up as a traditional football and baseball fan. I played tennis as a kid. I played soccer recreationally with friends. I wasn't very good. I was usually the slowest guy. I would get stuck as a defender or the goalie or something like that. I appreciate and love the game. My kids, Jeff and Robbie, play the game and are good players.  The story I tell - and it's true - is this.

Five or six years ago, when one of my sons was a senior in high school, I would come downstairs early on a Saturday or Sunday morning to kind of quietly sneak out of the house and play golf at 7 or 7:30. I heard a noise in the living room, and there was my 18-year-old son Robbie, on the couch wrapped in a blanket with a hat pulled down over his ears.  And he'd be watching the Premier League.

I would go over and say, "You didn't get home until 2 a.m. What are you doing up at 7:15, 7:30? You guys are supposed to sleep until noon, I thought."

And he'd say that Manchester United was playing, or Liverpool. My other son, Jeff, loved Liverpool. And then as I would leave the house, I'd see three or four other kids trudging up the walk with their blankets and their hats pulled down, and they'd be on the couch. I would get home from playing golf and they'd still be there.

I said to myself that there's got to be something to this. I've always said that if you don't learn from your kids you're making a big mistake. But that introduced me. They wouldn't watch other sports. They wouldn't think about watching a baseball game until the postseason. They wouldn't watch their home NFL teams, stuff like that. This was really an eye-opening experience for me.

That's when I really started to get an appreciation. I started to do research, watched a lot of the coverage on Fox Soccer and on ESPN2. Both of them did terrific work. Both of those networks did a good job with it, but clearly it wasn't the dominant property for either one of those places. That's where we kind of started.

Historically, each of the over-the-air American network TV sports operations has been known for particular things. ABC had the "Wide World of Sports" theme. CBS has the properties that it specializes in, and Fox does to. NBC, for the longest time, was Notre Dame, the NFL, baseball, the Olympics and Wimbledon. Everybody knew that was where they would find those things.

NBC has very quickly become known as a soccer destination, and as a company that wants to be a soccer destination. Talk about the pace of that change.

There is a clear flight to quality here. I think it's very important that people understand that. We are going to surround ourselves with the right brands and the right partners that we think fit our business style, our philosophy, our ability to tell stories. And also the scale. The Premier League, this kind of property lends itself to bringing all of our different assets together.

And it's not just NBC Sports Network and NBC. It's Telemundo, it's mun2, it's the digital package, it's Live Extra, it's Extra Time. It's using the regional sports networks. And then it's using CNBC and USA and other people down the road, when we have the Olympics.

The Olympics are really the only thing I can equate to the Premier League where we can bring all the different parts of our company together to really help grow this property and grow this brand. We want to be known as the network of the Premier League. That's very important to us.

Fox and ESPN did a good job with the Premier League, but other than making it a dominant property, are there things that you want to do differently from what they did?

That's really not my call. Certainly we wanted to put our own stamp on it, and what I think you'll find about our coverage is that it is authentic.

In meeting with Sam Flood, in putting someone like Pierre Moossa in the [lead producer's] chair, and having him go out and aggressively recruit the right talent, with Rebecca Lowe and being able to take advantage of Arlo White - all that stuff was important. I wanted it to really be a signature property for us, and every bit as important as the Olympics, as the NHL, and as Sunday Night Football.

You have been able to do a lot of creative things with this property across platforms, as you've mentioned. If you still had NBC's old Sunday afternoon AFC package of NFL games, would you be as flexible? The Premier League is a big property, but it's not as big as others. Does that let you experiment a little more?

I think there's a huge growth opportunity here. Where we're starting off, the bar has been set at a certain level, and we think we can raise that bar. You've seen it just today, in the amount of people who are awed - and I think that's probably the word I would use, from reading all the social traffic - at the amount of coverage.

When they realize this is the way it's going to be for the next 10 months, they are ecstatic and blown away. That's one of the things we're going to deliver.

Obviously, you are in this for business purposes. You paid a lot of money for this package, $250 million over three years. But is there any sense that you aren't just bringing the Premier League to Americans, you're bringing soccer to Americans? It's the sport, more than just the league? How much are you aware of that, and how much do you think of that when you make your decisions?

I think it's important. We've had a great relationship, and are in the second year of that relationship, with MLS. Telemundo has World Cup rights beginning in 2015. So we are building a very strong soccer business here, a soccer vertical if you will.

We're mindful of our role here, we're mindful that we have to be on our toes and deliver good work because people here know this sport. This is one of those sports where you can't fake it. There are a couple of sports out there where you can maybe get by with not doing everything you possibly can, but here you can't. If you make one little mistake, or are slow on one little thing, you'll hear about it.

That's the feedback that Twitter does too. The minute there's a glitch - like when we were a half-second behind [with the sound-picture sync during Swansea City-Manchester United] - we found out about it right away. We were scrambling, but we learned about it on Twitter and we went and fixed it.

We're mindful that this sport has an enormous following. The United States, with 350 million people, is a much different country than it was 10 or 15 years ago. There are people who've come to settle here for whom this is their primary sport. They are looking for someone to serve that need, and to scratch that itch. That's what we're looking to do here.

You've had your eyes on buying rights to the Premier League for a while now. The Premier League has a reputation as being one of the more business-friendly and marketing-savvy soccer competitions in the world. So the fit seems easy. Are there now other soccer properties you're looking at potentially bidding for?

We are a very opportunistic company. We look at everything that becomes available, and we know there are some other properties that are coming up in the not-too-distant future. We're looking forward to having conversations with MLS - we very much want to renew, and even grow, our relationship with those guys.

Then other properties are going to become available, and I think they're going to see what we bring to the table. Hopefully they'll want to be in business with us as well.

Is language a factor in that? For example, if you wanted to consider the leagues in Spain, or Italy, or Germany.

No, I don't think so at all. I think good quality content, people find it. Look how strong the Mexican league games are - I think that's a perfect example. People want to watch the best of the best. That's one of the reasons why the Premier League was so important to us. In our mind, it's the best of the best.

There has been a long tradition in the United States of broadcasting European soccer with European voices. Some people have broken through that, including Kyle Martino as one of NBC's studio analysts. Do you have an opinion about one day having the game brought to Americans by Americans?

I've never really thought about it that way, because I think the game is a global game. And I don't like to think of it in terms of Americans and everybody else. I want the best possible announcers and the best possible presenters and communicators.

If you look at our golf coverage, we think we have by far and away the best golf production team in the business, with no disrespect to anybody at other networks. Tommy Roy and his team and the talent team led by Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller are second to none. We don't have a foreign voice on our air. That's not to say that if the right voice came available, we wouldn't take advantage of that.

We are somewhat agnostic when it comes to talent. Here, with the Premier League, clearly the best announcers and best talent were English, and guys who have a familiarity with the sport. We're not going to dumb down our properties. We're going to make sure we put the best talent available on them.

When it comes to digital video rights and online streaming, a lot of people have spent a long time looking for the right way to monetize that platform. It seems like you all have put a lot of effort into that, with the Premier League and the NHL and and other sports. You all even broke down what used to be a pretty big barrier by live-streaming Sunday Night Football online.

Do you think you've found the answer yet?

I think that it's still kind of the holy grail, and everybody would like to find the right answer. The Olympics were really the lead opportunity there, by putting that content out there live for all the sports.

But clearly, we live in an eco-system where pay television is what's driving our business. It's important that we maximize that and do everything we can to avoid people turning away and dropping their subscriptions. These are ways we go about it.

Philly.com
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The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, the National Women's Soccer League, the U.S. men's and women's national teams, and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
Lauren Green Inquirer Staff Writer
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