The battle between ABC and NBC to attract college football viewers this season is about as one-sided as the Notre Dame games -- as the one against Navy yesterday was expected to be -- that NBC is broadcasting for the first time in more than a quarter-century.
After three games of a five-year reported $35-million contract, NBC's telecasts are averaging a 4.2 Nielsen rating, which translates to about 3.9 million homes. (Each rating point is equivalent to 921,000 households.)
ABC's College Football Association telecasts are doing about 50 percent better: an average 6.4 rating, about 5.9 million households.
NBC's 1990 agreement with Notre Dame was unprecedented in modern television history. Traditionally, the networks had contracted for football telecasts with umbrella organizations, such as the Big Ten and Pacific 10 conferences, the NCAA and later the College Football Association, a consortium of 63 schools from most of the nation's leading conferences and independents.
NBC's plan was that Notre Dame's national following would attract viewers on a regular basis. So far, thanks in part to a series of events beyond NBC's control, the ratings "could stand a little bit of infusion," according to media buyer Bill Sherman of McCann Erickson Worldwide.
Part of that infusion could come Saturday, when the Fighting Irish face USC in what figures to be the most attractive of the six games NBC will televise this year.
Part of NBC's problem in the first three outings has been the runaway scores that Notre Dame has posted. The average point differential has been 32 points, giving viewers little reason to stick around for the entire game.
For NBC's first telecast on Sept. 7, Notre Dame beat Indiana, 49-27, drawing a 4.4 rating. The Sept. 21 game against Michigan State, which Notre Dame won 49-10, got a 5.2 rating.
The ratings figured to continue to increase for the Oct. 12 game against Pittsburgh. The Panthers were 5-0 and were ranked 12th by The Associated Press. But that was the weekend when the nation was transfixed by the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on law professor Anita F. Hill's accusations of sexual harassment against then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. The rating dropped to 3.1 as Notre Dame again won in a rout, 42-7.
Ironically, Notre Dame did play in the season's best-rated college football game, but it was not on NBC because it wasn't a home game. Instead, Michigan's 24-14 defeat of Notre Dame on Sept. 14 garnered an 8.2 rating for ABC.
Ken Schanzer, executive vice president of NBC Sports, declined to say how the Notre Dame ratings to date compare with what was promised to advertisers. "The bottom line is that nothing has occurred this year in any way, shape or form to diminish one iota of our enthusiasm about the package," he said. "It's going well."
Meanwhile, ABC's college football ratings have exceeded by 23 percent what it drew last year when it only had Big Ten and Pacific 10 games and CBS was broadcasting CFA games. David Downs, vice president for programming at ABC Sports, predicted that the increase will grow to 30 percent to 35 percent by the end of the season.
The network attributes its increase to broadcasting a mix of games nationally and regionally. CBS mainly broadcast its CFA games on a national basis last year, but ABC produces four or five college football telecasts each weekend, with viewers seeing two at most.
"When you're doing college football, there's no such thing as a truly nationally appealing game," Downs said.
Even when nationally televised games do well in the ratings, ABC has observed that ratings are higher in the regions of the teams involved. But such a finding is not unique to college football.
"We haven't reinvented the wheel," Downs said. "We're doing what the NFL has been doing for years."
The additional expense involved has proved worthwhile in several ways, he said. The bulk of games and the work it has provided has boosted the morale at ABC Sports, which in the mid-1980s became the first network to go through a traumatic round of budget cutbacks.
The network has also regained its identity as the college football network, a status it lost in 1982 when CBS began sharing the package with ABC and which was further eroded by a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court ruling ending the NCAA's control over college football telecasts as a violation of anti-trust laws.
That decision would later help cause a proliferation of games on cable, and with the additional competition, lower ratings for network broadcasters.