CBS tries making a little hoop go a longer way

Media Watch

March 07, 1996|By Milton Kent

NEW YORK -- For the serious college basketball fan, it must be wonderful to be able to sit in front of one's television set on any winter weekend afternoon and dial up a game featuring two teams you've never heard of with a bunch of players who are as memorable as the guy who changes your car's oil.

However, for the serious college basketball television programmer, like Len DeLuca, CBS Sports' vice president in charge of such matters, the myriad games telecast each Saturday and Sunday must have the effect of adding a tiny bit of water to a nearly empty dishwashing detergent bottle, allowing you to stretch an already diluted product a little further.

"I call it the Balkanization of college basketball," DeLuca said during a break in a seminar for the network's NCAA tournament commentators this week. "The fractionalization doesn't work to anyone's benefit."

Indeed, for the season to date, through last Thursday, network college basketball ratings are down from last year, with NBC taking a 9 percent hit, CBS dropping 13 percent and ABC falling 25 percent.

The drop affects CBS worse, since college basketball is its franchise sport, now that the NBA, the NFL and Major League Baseball are gone. To make matters worse, CBS' college basketball coverage runs third among the key 18- to 49-year-old male demographic group behind the NBA on NBC and Fox's NHL coverage, though it might be unfair to compare CBS' 15 telecasts to Fox's three hockey broadcasts.

"We did two of the three things we wanted to do this year," said DeLuca. "We expanded our reach, with more games. We beat the competition, but we didn't expand our ratings."

Of course, as DeLuca accurately points out, the college basketball regular season does serve as a long lead-in to CBS' exclusive coverage of the tournament, which begins next week. But that lasts only a month, leaving four other months to worry about.

The network's new "wheel" strategy of shifting viewers from game to game had mixed results this year, and DeLuca said CBS will try to tighten it for next season.

In addition, DeLuca said he sent a copy of a recent New York Times column on this subject to college commissioners to ask for their help. He suggests that the colleges adopt for basketball the same strategy employed for college football, in which conferences sell their games to a local or cable distributor for an early window of telecasts, leaving the late afternoons for the networks. All of that is fine, but from the vantage point of these eyes and ears, CBS should consider some other steps to beef up its ratings.

There is no sport in the American consciousness that more closely melds emotion and athletic skill than college basketball, yet except for the opening montage, you rarely get that sense of passion in a CBS telecast. There may be a variety of factors involved, from the pictures and sounds of the game to the rather bland music to the fact that the sport is devoid of compelling stories and teams, but one of them, frankly, is at its analyst post, with Billy Packer. 6 6TC This is not meant as a continuation of Packer-bashing from the Allen Iverson incident over the weekend. His verbal misstep is totally unrelated to a point we raised here last April after the Final Four; that it appeared that Packer has lost some of his passion for the game.

A listener gets no sense of the glorious wonder and emotion of the sport, and that comes through the screen to the viewer, who needs a compelling reason to choose a CBS game over the seeming millions out there. Interestingly enough, Packer and John Madden, both Emmy winners, both came to CBS at around the same time, yet it's Madden who still commands the public's attention.

That's not to say that Packer, who has perhaps the sharpest basketball mind among announcers, should be shoved off the telecasts. But perhaps he should be paired with a bright, enthusiastic younger person, like Clark Kellogg or Dan Bonner, along with the extremely underrated Jim Nantz for a dynamic team, reminiscent of the days when Packer worked with Dick Enberg and Al Maguire at NBC for the best three-man booth ever.

Pub Date: 3/07/96

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