NBC defends horses over hockey decision

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NEW YORK -- NBC Sports defended its decision to cut off Saturday's telecast of the Buffalo Sabres-Ottawa Senators playoff game just as it moved into overtime in favor of the Preakness Stakes.

The network received criticism in the blogosphere and from some viewers for its decision to forgo the final minutes of the game to cover the Preakness from a Baltimore racetrack. A network spokesman said Monday that there was not much NBC could do: It was contractually obligated to carry Saturday's Preakness telecast.

The trouble started between 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. EDT, when the Sabres-Senators game moved into overtime. NBC carried the final moments of regulation and an interview with analyst Pierre McGuire before throwing the game to Versus.

That's where the overtime carried on with NBC's broadcast team while NBC started its coverage of the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown. Only the NBC affiliate in Buffalo, N.Y., remained with the Sabres-Senators game.

NBC said that its Preakness contract superseded the NHL telecast and, under the terms of its rights deal, the game was first offered to the NHL's cable provider, which is Versus. Because of the terms of the deal, Versus was the go-to place, even though it is not as fully distributed as some of the NBC Uni cable channels. Viewers were told onscreen and on-air about the fact that the game would be going to Versus after regulation as well as how to find it on the cable box by referencing NHL.com.

The NHL knew well in advance that there was a risk for this happening. But an NHL spokeswoman said that the ability for a larger audience to see the game on NBC was worth it, and the options were well-planned between NBC and Versus.

"We terribly regret that some of our avid fans weren't able to see the overtime play," the spokeswoman said. It wasn't as much a problem among home viewers as it was for those who were watching at bars and restaurants nationwide, where the distribution of Comcast-owned Versus is still sporadic.

It was the first time in two years that a playoff game has been dropped by NBC before its conclusion.

The Preakness ratings more than doubled in its first half-hour over what the game had performed, with a 1.5 overnight household rating from 4:30 p.m.-5 p.m. for the Sabres-Senators game; the Preakness prerace coverage averaged a 3.8 from 5 p.m.-5:30 p.m.

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