|Chris Neil and the Senators have been attracting record TV audience numbers this season for their games airing on Sportsnet East (Getty Images).
The Ottawa Senators' surprising rise to playoff contention has been a hit with television viewers.
Fans are tuning into the team in record numbers on Sportsnet East, the team's regional rights holder since the network launched in 1998. Through games played March 23, Senators telecasts were attracting an average per-minute audience of 196,200 per night, an increase of 24 per cent over the 2010-11 campaign.
"We're approaching 200,000 viewers per broadcast and that's the highest our Senators numbers have ever been," said Rob Corte, the network's vice-president of production. "We're very pleased and it's indicative of how the team is (playing) and how the marketplace feels about the team."
Indeed, it's no coincidence that the significant rise in interest in Senators TV broadcasts falls in line with the growing enthusiasm about a team that, in a lot of eyes, wasn't expected to contend for a playoff position in what had been deemed to be a rebuilding season. However, with less than two weeks left in the regular schedule, Ottawa holds down seventh place in the Eastern Conference and is moving closer to nailing down a post-season berth.
"There weren't high expectations (for the Senators) coming into the season," said Corte, a former producer of Sens games on Sportsnet. "They had a young team and were relatively inexperienced, but the team has performed well, the veterans have had strong comeback years and there's been surprise performances by some of the younger players.
"It's related to success and a current playoff spot. That has translated into some strong ratings ... They're an exciting team and you want to watch the games. Clearly, that's what viewers are doing now."
The ratings surge began in the early months of the season and continued to grow.
"Traditionally, the numbers always start off strong," said Corte. "There's that hope at the start of the season, that hockey's back, and then, depending on how the team does, it'll go up or down. In Ottawa, it started strong. It significantly and steadily climbed through the first months of the season and it stayed there. Now the numbers have been consistently good all year."
At least two Senators telecasts on Sportsnet have cracked the 300,000 mark this season — a Nov. 4 matchup with the Montreal Canadiens (327,400) and a Jan. 17 contest against the Toronto Maple Leafs (334,800). The average overall reach during a game, or total viewership, has swelled to 750,000.
As well, the Senators are starting to reap full benefits of the Portable People Meter (PPM) ratings system, which is designed to provide a more accurate method of audience measurement.
"We've been trending up for several years and the addition of PPMs has certainly made for more accurate audience reporting," said Jim Steel, the Senators' vice-president of broadcasting. "The exciting team is also contributing to (the ratings increase) as well."
This season has also seen the introduction of a 30-minute pre-game show leading into Sportsnet telecasts, which Corte believes can help get fans revved up for the games.
"The pre-game show has been a pleasant surprise ... the numbers have been tremendous," said Corte. "They've far exceeded what our expectations would have been. There is a desire and craving for Ottawa Senators coverage in the marketplace and this speaks to it right there. (The pre-game show) just gives viewers another place at a different time to get Senators information. It builds anticipation and gets the story lines flowing leading into the broadcast and then it just carries through (to the games)."
Sportsnet East and Sportsnet One will carry a combined 52 games this season to the Senators broadcast territory, which covers a region extending east from Peterborough, Ont., and also includes parts of Northern Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces.