On Friday, news came that NBCUniversal, a subsidiary of Comcast, will be shutting down its cable sports network NBCSN by the end of the year.
Most of its sports programming, including its NHL hockey broadcasts, Premier League soccer broadcasts, and NASCAR races, are expected to shift to sister cable channel USA Network and Comcast’s Peacock streaming service.
A look back on NBCSN and USA
NBCSN first launched in 1995 as Outdoor Life Network (OLN), showcasing, well, outdoors sports. In 2006, the network was renamed to “Versus,” and given a bit of a revamp. OLN’s Canadian version still exists under that name, as Canada has stricter rules about cable channels changing formats; it’s currently owned by Canadian cable/broadband giant Rogers.
In 2011, after Comcast’s merger with NBCUniversal, the network’s name was changed to the generic (but more easily searchable in Google than “Versus”) “NBC Sports Network,” or NBCSN for short. Efforts were also made to beef up its sports programming.
For me, NBCSN always felt like an attempt to compete with ESPN, albeit perennially trailing in popularity. That said, it’s basically NBC’s sports coverage as a cable channel, but otherwise didn’t have anything remarkable about it.
USA Network has been an American cable lineup mainstay since its launch in 1977 (initially as a sports network; it gained its present identity/name in 1980). After going through several owners, NBCUniversal bought USA in 2003.
USA has had a fairly generic identity as a channel. Through its history, USA has mostly aired sitcom/drama reruns, game shows, and various sports. Since the aughts, it’s also had success with original dramas, such as “Monk.”
Since Comcast gained ownership, USA’s also been used to air sports its other networks don’t have room/time to air, as well as NBC’s Olympics programming. Pro wrestling’s also been a longtime mainstay of USA; the network’s been the home of WWE wrestling since the 1980s. (On Monday, NBCUniversal announced the WWE’s streaming service will be folded into Peacock.)
USA also aired cartoons in the 80s and 90s on its long-running “Cartoon Express” lineup. Early on, it mostly consisted of Hanna-Barbera cartoons (Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Scooby-Doo). By the early 90s (with the launch of Cartoon Network), USA switched to airing various animated movie spin-offs (“Problem Child,” “Highlander,” etc.) and some action cartoons (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” etc.). USA also aired “The Superman/Batman Adventures,” a compilation package of 1960s Filmation DC cartoons, as well as some unaired-in-the-US-until-then “Super Friends” episodes.
Reasons Comcast’s shutting down NBCSN
There’s several reasons given (or not explicitly stated) for why Comcast is shuttering NBCSN.
For one, the pandemic’s hurt sports a lot in 2020, and with it, TV networks relying on revenue from sports (advertising, etc.). On a related note is the 2020 Summer Olympics, which have been delayed into 2021 (with ongoing debate over whether to hold them at all). Given how much Comcast has (over)paid for Olympics rights, not seeing them held is a big financial blow.
NBCSN also never became a real ESPN rival. ESPN has a large number of beloved programs (Sportscenter, various biographical shows, etc.), and is a mainstay for basketball and baseball. NBCSN, meanwhile, is mostly “that channel that airs hockey/auto racing/the Olympics.”
There’s also the ongoing state of cord cutting, with people less interested in paying for expensive cable packages. One reason Comcast is pushing its Peacock streaming service hard, of course. While NBCSN is still profitable, the future seems to be on streaming services more than niche cable channels.
The NHL’s agreement with NBCUniversal is also up after this season’s over, and the one with English Premier League soccer’s also up next year. Presumably the NHL will want a better deal for their games. (Ideally, they should at least get all of the Stanley Cup final games on NBC-proper, not split between NBC and a cable channel.)
Finally, USA Network is still a popular basic cable channel, and more widely carried than NBCSN. (USA not being on expensive sports tiers helps.) Between that and its long history of airing sports, seeing NASCAR or the NHL on there won’t feel too out of place.