Scandals and injuries, hot youths and still-passionate old-timers — the NBA season tip-off this week could give SoapNet a run for its money in the melodrama department. But whether the frenzy of media interest surrounding Kobe Bryant’s rape trial or the possibility of Michael Jordan’s return or the promise of LeBron James will put big ratings up on the board is still up in the air. This much, however, is certain: Avid hoops fans will find more games and more off-court action this season than ever before, thanks to the league’s 24/7 network debut on cable. About 7 million digital subscribers to Time Warner Cable, Cablevision and Cox Communications can check out NBA TV, where they will find 96 live NBA games with up to 50 games in hi-def this season. Of those HD games, between 20 and 25 will be originally produced (in the 16-by-9 format that will be letterboxed into NBA TV for standard-def release) and the balance picked up from MSG Network and other programmers. An added bonus: NBA TV’s first HD telecast will also feature James, when the hotshot rookie and his fellow Cleveland Cavaliers take on the Portland Trail Blazers on Nov. 1. James’s professional debut was captured on TNT on Oct. 16, when the Cavaliers beat the Lakers 102-87 in preseason competition, while his regular season debut against the Sacramento Kings takes place this week (Oct. 29) on ESPN. As the first pro sports league to tape and transmit its games in HD — in 1992 NHK first helped the NBA transmit the All-Star Game and finals in hi-def — its 24/7 network plans to also squeeze in at least two more HD games this fall (Boston at New York on Nov. 17 and the Lakers at San Antonio on Dec. 3) before ESPN HD tips off its NBA hi-def roster in December. “We’re also moving the graphics out of the frame this season, putting them below and above, to enhance the viewing experience in HD,” says Steve Hellmuth, NBA SVP of operations and technology. “With SurroundSound for those with home theaters set up, we put the announcers front and center and we track the audio as it goes left and right up and down the court and we put the crowd behind you, so you get more of a feeling that you’re really there.” But the network will serve fans a whole lot more than a smorgasbord of crisp 1080i matchups with enhanced audio this season as a taste of what’s to come next season, when it will be a full-time HD network. In Demand is transmitting NBA TV’s standard definition and four-hour HD blocks to Cablevision, Time Warner and Cox in addition to carrying select classic NBA games in HD (including the 2003 All-Star Game) on INHD, its new 24-hour linear hi-def channel. In Demand and the NBA are also expanding HD coverage of NBA League Pass, the NBA’s digital cable subscription package of up to 40 out-of-market games; a free preview will be offered Oct. 29 to Nov. 4. “We’re now reaching about 45 million U.S. households with these three cable deals,” says Gregg Winik, EVP of programming and executive producer for NBA TV, of the cable distribution added to the network’s satellite carriage on DirecTV and EchoStar’s Dish Network. “We have the audience. Now we have to make sure we create content that people want to come regularly to and check in often. We want to make NBA TV the home page for basketball fans on television.” Winik thinks fans will also appreciate the virtual backstage pass the network offers in the form of original programming. “The best example of what kind of things NBA TV can deliver to viewers on a regular basis is Real Training Camp With the Denver Nuggets [a five-part reality miniseries running Friday nights through Nov. 7], where we embedded a producer and a camera crew with the Nuggets from the beginning of training camp through the final cuts to the first game of the regular season,” says Winik, who is planning similar miniseries around NBA All-Star weekend and the playoffs. “There are some high-profile rookies including Carmelo Anthony playing in Denver, and basketball fans want to be in the know: What’s Kiki [Vandeweghe, the Nuggets’ GM] thinking, what are the players doing and how hard will they fight to get their jobs? All of this comes out in the show and much more.” The league is also committed to expanding its interactive and wireless strengths into more creative features for broadband, which now represents more than 60% of its unique online visitors. The league boasts a loyal (more than 2 million unique visitors daily) online fan base to NBA.com and its $9.95 a month Inside Ticket subscription package, which is also part of Real Networks’ $14.95 RealOne SuperPass. Brenda Spoonemore, the league’s SVP of interactive services, says the NBA brand can help operators drive their high-speed Internet services beyond highlights and video for broadband platforms. “The best way to view a game is live, the next best way is to watch it in HD, then on TV,” she says. “Our online strength is really about interactivity, with games such as ‘Fantasy NBA: The Rookies’ or ‘Virtual G.M.’ [also the name of its live nightly studio show running throughout the season]. We’re looking to develop integrated platform strategies to reach fans whether online or on-air.” She’s also part of the team helping make the network VOD-ready (tapping into a decade’s worth of archives as an adjunct to more current programming), more interactive (expanding on previous Wink-enabled Thursday night games on TNT) and a broadband leader not only in the U.S. but abroad. Spoonemore is developing cutting-edge applications such as NBA-branded live broadband games and wireless and online NBA All-Star balloting in 17 languages to reach the international market. “We’re interested in experimenting, and in our ideal world we’re working hand in hand with our partners to test these technologies,” she says. “It also resonates well with our fans, particularly with our unwired and dynamic fan base.” Of course, basketball fever is hoped to spread across the NBA’s television partners, from ABC (now carrying 18 regular-season games) and its siblings at ESPN and ESPN2 (64 and eight games, respectively) to TNT (52 games). The cross-network Premiere Week activities include the return of the league’s “I Love This Game” ad campaign. More than 100 NBA players are making their debut for new teams this season including Gary Payton and Karl Malone with the Lakers and Latrell Sprewell with the Timberwolves, while highly anticipated rookies include James, Anthony and Darko Milicic. Ten NBA coaches are with new teams, including former Knicks coach (and TNT talent) Jeff Van Gundy, who is now with the Houston Rockets and their 7-foot, 6-inch sensation Yao Ming. The off-court drama and on-court action will mix it up this week with 12 games over five straight nights of doubleheaders starting tomorrow on TNT, ESPN and NBA TV, which has seven new shows (from Real Training Camp to The NBA Store, a new products roundup) to keep fans glued between games. TNT is more than 60% sold out on its NBA inventory, says Turner Sports president David Levy, who credits its 20% higher ratings last season and exclusive Thursday night games package. The network’s regular-season tip-off is tomorrow night at 8 p.m., with Phoenix at San Antonio and a special Spurs championship ring ceremony and performance by Thalia. TNT follows with Dallas at L.A. at 10:30 p.m., featuring the debut of Malone and Payton in purple and gold — and hopes the combo sets the stage for a consistent rating of 1.5 for the NBA season, topping its 1.2 average rating last season. (The cross-media marketing push of its new NBA spots from the sport’s superfan Spike Lee and his crew may help make that dream come true.) Wednesday sees Orlando at New York (ESPN, 9 p.m.) when Tracy McGray showcases new Magic uniforms against the new-look Knicks. ESPN follows with Cleveland at Sacramento, LeBron James’s first regular-season game in the NBA. Thursday sees the L.A. Clippers vs. Seattle from Japan on NBA TV at 5:30 a.m. (two teams open the season in Japan). That night, Denver at Houston (TNT, 8 p.m.) features Carmelo Anthony’s first televised NBA game and Houston’s first game in the new Toyota Center, under Jeff Van Gundy and in new uniforms. TNT follows at 10:30 p.m. with Cleveland at Phoenix, when the season’s most touted rookie takes on the Suns and Amare Stoudemire, last season’s “got milk?” rookie of the year. Halloween (a.k.a. Friday, Oct. 31) features Minnesota at New Jersey on ESPN at 8 p.m., when the revamped Timberwolves take on last year’s Eastern Conference champs. Afterward, Philadelphia and Sacramento (ESPN, 10:30 p.m.), two of the league’s most exciting teams, square off. This weekend sees the return of James and the Cavaliers on Saturday night, with Cleveland at Portland in HD on NBA TV (10 p.m.). The following night, the network features Golden State at L.A. Lakers (9:30 p.m.), when the Warriors take on Shaq & Co. NBA commissioner David Stern says that it’s only a matter of time before the network clinches a deal with Comcast. “We’re in daily negotiations with Comcast, and it’s our hope that we will be making more than one additional cable deal for the launch of NBA TV in cable systems this year,” Stern commented last week. “These are slow negotiations, but we’ve been having very good discussions. We would hope we’ll make a deal with Comcast, certainly by the end of the year if not before the start of the season. And we also hope that that would happen with Adelphia, Charter, Mediacom and the other members of the consortium. Our goal is to sign up the entire cable industry by the end of the year.” Although he’d like any other cable deals to be on basic, he also knows that the network’s mix of original programming content and its “loyalty-attracting capacity” will help drive operators’ digital tiers. “Over a period of time we expect the network to grow…[and] it will continue to grow. We’re confident.” NBA TV, the league’s 24-hour television network, will televise live 95 regular-season NBA games and select NBA playoff games this season. The schedule (subject to change) offers up to 50 hi-def telecasts:

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