Those accustomed to watching Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal driving to the basket for a slam dunk at the buzzer probably won't be too impressed with his replacement on KCAL-TV Channel 9: Judge Judy.
The National Basketball Association's player lockout has forced the cancellation of games at least through the end of November, leaving local television and cable stations to rethink their programming strategy and cope with lost advertising revenues.
"There really is no substitute for NBA for us," said Patrick McClenahan, vice president and executive producer of KCAL 9 Sports. "It's our highest-rated programming and something we've made a commitment to. It's something that is part of the identity of KCAL, and we hope it is back on the air real soon."
The NBA is embroiled in a four-month-plus battle with its players over escalating labor costs. The NBA wants to limit the percentage of revenues that the players as a group receive given that players' salaries have more than doubled since 1993. The union representing basketball players is fighting the effort to cap that percentage.
Late last month, NBA Commissioner David Stern canceled games for the month of November, and the league and players are struggling to start the season on Dec. 1.
KCAL, owned by New York-based Young Broadcasting Inc., is losing out on six Lakers games and three Clippers games and will lose out on more if the lockout is not resolved in the next few weeks. News Corp.'s Fox Sports West and Fox Sports West 2 cable channels will have lost seven Lakers games and four Clippers games through November.
At KCAL, the games preempt the station's normal programming, so the station is not struggling to find shows to fill the time. It simply airs its regular programs, such as "Judge Judy," National Geographic specials and its nightly news none of which bring in the same kind of ratings and audience demographics.
McClenahan would not disclose how much money KCAL is losing on the lost games, but he conceded that many sponsors who advertise during basketball games are not interested in switching to National Geographic shows or other programming.
"You do your best to put your sponsors into other programming, whether it's Kings hockey or Mighty Ducks hockey, but there is no question that there is a loss of revenue that you just can't replace," he said.
Cable's Fox Sports West and Fox Sports West 2 rely even more heavily on basketball than KCAL. Under an agreement with the NBA, Fox is airing old Lakers and Clippers games each week. To fill in for additional games, Fox Sports West, along with all channels in the regional Fox Sports Net, are running the Sixth Annual Major League Baseball Japan All-Star Series games between Major League Baseball players and players from the Japanese Professional Baseball Leagues.
Steve Webster, spokesman for Fox Sports West and West 2, said those games could attract interest because of the involvement of Chicago Cubs star Sammy Sosa and because of the popularity Major League Baseball had this year. The channels also have other programming to fill in for the lost NBA games, he said.
"We have a ton of Kings games, a ton of Ducks games, we're going to pick up a couple of USC and UCLA (basketball) games," Webster said. "It's not really hurting us as much as people think. We'd definitely like to have it back, but we're not scrambling to find something to put in its place. We have plenty of programming."
Webster also would not disclose how much his company is losing in advertising revenues. But Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and head of TV sports consulting firm Pilson Communications, said Fox likely faces a large loss.
"It's certainly a revenue hit," Pilson said. "They're not getting anything for Japanese baseball. There's no revenue stream for that."
Despite losses at Fox and KCAL, one broadcaster of NBA games is not expressing concern at least not yet. NBC holds the network contract for NBA games, including the championships, but is not scheduled to air any games until Christmas Day, and regular game-of-the week coverage does not begin until Jan. 16. The network has not yet made plans for what it will do if the lockout lasts until then.
"It's not a question we have to answer yet," said NBC Sports spokesman Ed Markey.
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