NCAA tourney has crew at CBS scurrying aboout like Mardh hares

March 22, 1992|By Bernard Fernandez | Bernard Fernandez,Knight-Ridder News Service

NEW YORK -- CBS studio host Pat O'Brien, his feet comfortably propped up on the white, Formica-topped desk, is relaxing before it is time to deliver another update of NCAA Tournament games in progress and to engage in a bit of repartee with co-host Mike Francesca. Directly in O'Brien's line of vision is a hand-written sign whose message is anything but non-partisan.

"Do I have to look at this 'Go, Campbell' sign all day?" O'Brien asks in mock annoyance. "Can you believe it, a Campbell grad in the control room!"

The mere mention of Campbell University brings a smile and a raised-fist salute from cameraman Nick Rawluk, who is, indeed, a graduate of the Buies Creek, N.C., school that had the unenviable -- and as time would show, impossible -- task of trying to knock off No. 1-ranked Duke in a first-round East Regional game from Greensboro, N.C., later in the evening.

Campbell was at the tournament for the first time, and Rawluk had vowed to celebrate -- quietly, of course -- every mention of the Fighting Camels for as long as they kept dancing. It turned out to be a short waltz for Duke, lasting 40 minutes and 82 points, to the Camels' 56.

Welcome to a behind-the-scenes glimpse of March Madness, CBS style. And the craziness has precious little to do with buzzer-beating three-pointers or the inspired goofiness of NCAA Tournament pairings that can have defending national champion Duke matched up against a trillion-to-one shot (according one oddsmaker) like Campbell.

One day every year during the NCAA tournament, CBS opens the doors to the CBS Broadcast Center to two dozen or so television writers, presumably to acquaint them with the logistical nightmare the event presents to its production staff and on-air personnel. Once the writers see the three-ring (and, sometimes, four-ring) circus up close and personal, the thinking goes, they might be less inclined to complain that the network didn't switch to one good game soon enough, or that it switched too soon from an exciting, out-of-area contest to return to a routine game of local area interest.

Covering 32 first-round games in two days is madness, all right, but Ted Shaker, the organizational genius who serves as executive producer of CBS Sports, somehow finds a way to make sense of it all. Unless, of course, something quite unforeseen happens to throw the game plan out of whack.

Just such a development occurred near the end of the first half of the second afternoon game from Greensboro, when a severe electrical storm in the area caused three power outages during Missouri's 89-78 victory over West Virginia. The delays meant the game would carry past CBS's scheduled 5 p.m. sign-off, forcing the network to make some hard decisions. Stay with the game until its conclusion? Or cut away and leave viewers hanging?

CBS opted to stick with the game to its conclusion in its areas where the game was important, which include most of the Midwest, western Pennsylvania, southwest Ohio and all of West Virginia. Anyone else wanting the final score would just have to check the local news or tune in to CBS's evening doubleheader.

Shaker, standing before a battery of TV screens in the control room, is the man who decides which pictures you see, and when. He gladly would explain the reasoning behind his decisions, but he doesn't have the time to chat when the writers are ushered into his domain for a quick peek. Their presence is not acknowledged. It's doubtful Shaker even knew who was there.

It thus was left to Neal Pilson, president of CBS Sports, to serve as the answer man this day. The first question was about the weather. The Missouri-West Virginia problems notwithstanding, Pilson said he loves inclement weather because it means a larger audience for TV hoops. He was almost giddy that a late winter storm hit the Northeast, presumably giving scores of commuters a reason to take the day off and watch the college kids slam-dunk.

"Generally speaking, ratings go up when the weather is lousy," Pilson said. "My heart skipped a beat when I saw it was snowing today."

One day does not an entire tournament make, but CBS seems to be off to a flying start. Several first-round games went right down to the final horn, a pattern Pilson would love to see followed through the Final Four, and the network's coverage has been streamlined in accordance with viewers' wishes. There will be fewer of those jumbled "quad-box" shots in which the screen is divided into four parts, each showing a snippet of action from a different game, and more frequent updates of scores and time remaining.

"We'll still use the quad-box at times, but strictly as a mood indicator, not as a means of identifying what's happening," Pilson said.

"And we learned from our NFL experience that you just can't put up the scores and time remaining often enough."

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