TV ratings to take short-term hit, but count on NBA to bounce back

MEDIA WATCH

January 14, 1999|By MILTON KENT

It's still early in the day and the nightly police reports haven't come in from Atlanta and New York yet, but it's safe to say that no executives from Turner and NBC have committed hara-kiri over yesterday's retirement of Michael Jordan.

There are certainly enough amateurs out there prognosticating the demise of the NBA and its television ratings, now that Jordan has taken his high-wire act home for good, on the theory that viewers will go elsewhere.

And in the short term, the numbers on NBA games are likely to fall somewhat, but for reasons that are larger than just one player, even one with the enormous marquee value of Jordan.

The biggest reason is the residual effect of the just-concluded lockout. Viewers are bound to express some of their anger for what the players and owners did by watching in smaller numbers than they have been. The extent of that anger is anybody's guess, of course, but a fall is pretty likely.

But while Jordan's absence may have some effect, who's to say that it will be that dramatic, say 10 or more percent? After all, when Jordan left the NBA for baseball before the 1993-94 season, NBC's average for its regular-season package was a 4.6 rating. Last season's average, with Jordan, was a 4.8.

Besides, the dire forecasts ignore the notion that NBC and Turner were already planning for Jordan's departure. With the mega-star approaching his 36th birthday next month, the odds were pretty strong that he was going to leave at some point during the four-year contract the two entities just entered.

NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol said as much last week -- before Jordan announced his retirement.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you that his presence isn't important. He's been one of the most dramatically significant sports figures in history," said Ebersol, who attended yesterday's news conference. "But we've had to be ready for that [his departure]. We did have to plan two seasons where Michael didn't play."

NBC, for instance, had scheduled the Bulls for 11 appearances -- the maximum permitted for a team -- in the original television schedule that was released last July before the lockout.

However, nine of those appearances were "protected" regional games, where the network would have shown a Bulls game and another game to portions of the country. On Jan. 30, for example, NBC was scheduled to show Chicago-Seattle and Phoenix-Minnesota to the country. With Jordan, let's say 90 percent of the nation would have seen the Bulls game. Without Jordan, the network would probably have split the audience more evenly.

And let's not forget that when the Bulls appear on either NBC or Turner, they're usually playing another high-profile team. After all, who except for the real "get-a-lifers" wants to see Jordan torch Sacramento or the Los Angeles Clippers for 45?

The league has always done a good job in making sure that its best teams and players get the maximum national television exposure, and it will probably do the same when the schedule is released next week.

It will take awhile for the NBA to bounce back from the dual hits it has suffered, but, as Ebersol points out, for those who want to reach the young male demographic, the NBA is the best place to go in the first and second quarters of the year.

So, let's not have any pity parties for NBC and Turner over Jordan's departure. They're big conglomerates who can take care of themselves. Worry, instead, for the careers of NBC's Ahmad Rashad and ESPN's Stuart Scott. They've been so attached to Jordan's hip for so long that they may have no place to go.

A wise suggestion

In the midst of all this talk about whether instant replay should return to the NFL, its best television analyst, Fox's John Madden, has come up with a great idea.

Besides pointing out where a team needs to get to for a first down, Madden believes the next television technological advance ought to be a device that would tell the viewers when an official's whistle has been blown.

Such a device, in Madden's mind, would have been helpful in a couple of recent playoff games, where controversies arose over perceived missed calls. In particular, Madden pointed to the San Francisco-Green Bay wild-card game in which Jerry Rice apparently fumbled on a reception late in the game. Two plays later, Steve Young threw a touchdown pass to Terrell Owens that won the game for the 49ers.

"The call wasn't blown because of the fumble. It was because of the premature whistle. I would like to see something where when the whistle blows, you know the play is dead," Madden said.

Sounds like something worth looking into.

The century mark

ESPN's "SportsCentury" observance of the end of the 20th century kicks into a higher gear from here on out with a weekly countdown of the top 50 athletes of the last 100 years, as voted on by a panel of journalists and observers.

The 50th athlete, tennis great Chris Evert, will be feted in a 30-minute show that premieres Jan. 22. Each week throughout the year, another athlete will be saluted until the end of December, when the top two competitors will be chosen on an hourlong show on ABC.

Athletes in the 51st-100th positions were announced earlier this week, and the entire collection of 100 athletes will be documented in a book to be released in September.

Pub Date: 1/14/99

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