Utah’s Solution To The RSN Mess Is A Revival Of All That Jazz

I’m intimately familiar with exactly what the Utah Jazz mean to the Salt Lake City media market.  One of my final challenges during my first stint with FOX was to bring in line a station we had acquired that was more of a speculative play, and the first under our management that was not located in a market where overnight ratings were available at the time.  A positive was that the station was a VHF independent station, channel 13, that often had ratings competitive with the other network-affiliated stations in the market, including the market leader that was outright owned by the Mormon church.  A downside was a fledgling competitor was owned by the leader of a religion that was rapidly challenging them for an even greater grip on the perceptions of viewers.    Yes, that station was owned at the time by the man who also owned to market’s sole major league sports franchise, the Utah Jazz.

Larry H. Miller was a flamboyant self-made millionaire who owned numerous car dealerships in the Salt Lake Valley, and when he brought the Jazz there from New Orleans to replace the void that the ABA Stars left in the  70s he tapped into a fan base of well-heeled families more than willing to overlook the fact that jazz was hardly the music of choice in most of their households.  After all, the Lakers kept their name when they moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, and although there are a few thousand less and much smaller lakes around the L.A. basin, they hadn’t been faring that badly,  So when Miller had the chance to sign on the market’s first UHF TV station, despite what at the time was a low cable penetration he knew he had the secret weapon to get people to sign up.  The TV rights to his team.

And sure enough, even though KJZZ-TV had an over-the-air disavantage, its position on channel 14, the top number on the UHF dial, put it squarely next to our KSTU, Channel 13.  And thus it immediately became top of mind with diary-keepers who would often confuse them, especially during the NBA season, when the Jazz games would break double-digit ratings on a regular basis in prime time.  People assumed they were watching the shows before and against them.  KSTU’s advantage and ratings, and their profitability, had been on the decline.  The reaction of the station’s management was to overpay for and acquire virtually every significant off-network rerun, and leading the way was a blowhard, misoygnist general manager named Milt Jouflas, who was not only making every syndicator rich on his account, he was openly carrying on a sexually harassing relationship with the former beauty queen who served as the face of the station.  The court case that I inherited along with the responsibility of trying to get this station fiscally sound is a matter of public record; Google it sometime.  It’s the only time someone on the record referred to me as “that asshole”.  I’m sure plenty of you have wanted to do that privately at some point.

Why this is relevant is that today KJZZ-TV is back in the news, with the team’s current ownership reclaiming media rights they had given up earlier to the siren’s song of regional sports networks.  And as The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov reported, they are following a back to the future formula that today’s questionable climate surrounding RSNs has already motivated several other teams in several sports to already put in motionL

The Jazz will air all of their games not exclusive to national TV in two places next season, on free over-the-air television locally on KJZZ and online with a new direct-to-consumer stream for its fans, in an attempt to reach as many viewers as possible. It’s a clear shift from the TV model NBA teams have preferred for years, trading in cable dollars to maximize the households it can reach.

“If you’ve got bunny ears on your TV,” Smith told The Athletic in an interview, “you can get Jazz games.”

The Jazz had aired on AT&T SportsNet in previous seasons, but the network was owned by Warner Bros. Discovery, which pulled out of the RSN industry this spring. The team’s deal with AT&T SportsNet was set to expire at the end of the 2022-23 season, and it was already seeking a new TV home.

Now it will try to broaden its audience as wide as it can. The franchise has launched a new media division, SEG Media, inside the Smith Entertainment Group and will produce Jazz games, along with other content it says will be exclusive to the team and its new broadcasters. The games will air on KJZZ, channel 14 on the dial, locally. Salt Lake City’s CBS affiliate, KUTV-2, will also have rights to air Jazz games and content, though the majority of games will air on KJZZ; both channels are owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group. SEG Media will produce the games – bringing back Craig Bolerjack, Thurl Bailey and Holly Rowe on the air — and sell ads for them.

Ironically, the RSNs that Sinclair owns in other markets, via its Diamond Sports subsidiary that controls the Bally’s Sports Network entities that evolved from their purchase of what were the FOX Sports Nets regionals, have contributed heavily to the rapid decline of the RSN business.  Their failure to make payments to the San Diego Padres at the end of last month resulted in the creation of the first MLB-owned RSN, using a similar formula of familiar faces and voices coupled with expanded shoulder programming,   A similar deadline involving the Texas Rangers in what Diamond sees as a somewhat more viable entity just happened with a payment, but there’s no guarantee that will continue.  Another upcoming deadline in Cincinnati with the surprisingly competitive Reds, in a flagship market for another station group (Scripps) looms.  Scripps is already moving forward in Las Vegas with its intention to move off of the AT&T regional with the Stanley Cup champion Golden Knights with their ION affiliate.  On the NBA side, the Suns announced their intention to strike a similar retro model to the Jazz with Gray Television’s KTVK, but Diamond has thrown a temporary monkey wrench into those plans by citing a pre-existing arrangement with Bally Sports Arizona.  The Suns’ new billionaire management is looking to proceed regardless.

The win-wins are obvious and numerous, as the Jazz’ Smith pointed out.  More available fans mean more loyalty, more desire to subscribe to an MVPD to get the station, and more potential subscriptions for those who can afford and desire the convenience to watch online instead.  And an awful lot of shoulder and adjacent programming that can now can get even higher ratings for KJZZ than they did when Larry H. Miller ran my old friend Milt out of the market, along with the FOX lawyers that eventually fired him for cause.

ALL THAT JAZZ was a popular movie when I was called an asshole on the record.  It’s apparently back in fashion now.  I sure hope my reputation’s a little better.

Courage..

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