Lundquist, CBS put eye on figure skating telecasts

ON THE AIR

November 24, 1994|By MILTON KENT

If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, then Verne Lundquist figures that he is downright frightening just about now, at least when it comes to figure skating.

"I'm getting to the point where now I'm dangerous, because I'm beginning to understand. I can tell one jump from another, and that's really scary," Lundquist said with a hearty laugh.

"I went through the entire 1992 [Winter] Olympic Games saying, 'Scott?' " he said, referring to partner Scott Hamilton. "That was the key, I guarantee you."

Lundquist, who will be the lead announcer for CBS' "Eye on Sports" skating series that begins today at 2:30 p.m. (Channel 11), and airs each weekend until Christmas, is slowly but surely ++ getting the knack of figure skating to the point where calling it isn't a job, but a pleasure.

"I appreciate the athleticism involved, the athletic ability that it takes to do what these athletes do, plus the combination of the music," said Lundquist. "Anybody who's got a little bit of poetry in their soul likes that part of it, and even those who don't might."

With the departure of the NFL and baseball in the past 14 months, figure skating has become CBS' second biggest franchise after college basketball.

The numbers certainly demonstrate that skating has become a big-time player in the televised sports realm.

Last February's women's short program competition at the Lillehammer Olympics, fueled by the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan controversy, drew a 48.5 rating and 64 share of the viewing audience, making it the fourth-most-watched program in television history.

CBS' announcers and officials are quick to point out that the rating for that night was a once-in-a-lifetime fluke, but the numbers for a recent made-for-TV team competition that aired in prime time indicate that the sport's attractiveness has not yet worn off.

Though figure skating's appeal cuts across many demographic categories, its ability to draw men and women is key to CBS' overall plan to rebuild its sports division.

"What they're hoping for is alternative programming, that maybe they can get an audience that maybe is channel surfing and maybe the husband and the wife say, 'You know, I kind of enjoyed that at the Olympics. Let's see what's going on,' " said Lundquist.

Five of the nine "Eye on Sports" events will air on Sunday afternoons, but no one at CBS dares to suggest that the skating programs are competing with NFL games for ratings.

Presumably, ratings in the 4-6 range, about a third to half of the NFL national average, will be more than enough to keep all sides -- network programmers and advertisers -- happy.

"It [skating] doesn't have the 50-year history. This is not national team sports," said David Kenin, CBS Sports president. "This is something very specific where you have wonderful individual athletes who have achieved greatness."

At the heart of it all is Lundquist, one of the truly underrated talents in sports broadcasting, who is as affable and gracious in person as he appears to be on the air.

Lundquist, 54, who came to CBS from ABC in 1982, got nibbles from Fox last winter after it pried the NFL from CBS, and he nearly went, fearing there wouldn't be enough for him to do at Black Rock.

But, ultimately, Lundquist -- who calls a weekly NBA package for TBS on Thursdays -- decided to stay, believing that CBS, which will welcome back college football in January 1996, had enough to keep him from leaving home.

"They gave me a chance in 1982 that turned into a heck of an opportunity professionally," said Lundquist. "I do think it's a cyclical business. The cycle will evolve, and things will work out."

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