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College Hoop Pie Sliced Thinly

By Steve Nidetz Chicago Tribune

Nothing kills the goose that lays the golden eggs faster than television. And college basketball once a weekend staple for its cheap thrills is on the endangered species list.

National ratings for the sport are slipping dangerously close to local-access level. Even the big-ticket items, such as the NCAA Tournament, for which CBS paid more than $1 billion, has had its ratings slip an alarming 22 percent (from 9.4 to 7.3) in the past two years.

Going into the past weekend, CBS’ regular-season basketball ratings were down 9 percent (from 2.3 to 2.1), ABC’s were down 17 percent (from 2.4 to 2.0) and ESPN was down 7 percent (from 1.5 to 1.4).

To be sure, NBC was up 9 percent (from 2.2 to 2.4), but that was after only three telecasts as compared to five last season. And ESPN2, with a staggering 40 percent increase in game telecasts, was up 50 percent - from a 0.2 to a whopping 0.3.

How much is too much? Just this past Saturday, for instance, there were 16 games available to Chicago-area viewers. They could have watched hoops from 11 a.m. until nearly midnight, taking in parts of as any as six games all going on around 2 p.m.

And that doesn’t take into account SportsChannel’s tape-delay telecasts early Sunday morning. Nor the dozens of games available through direct broadcast satellite packages like DirecTV’s “Full Court.”

In addition, there were another seven contests aired Sunday. And there would have been at least one more if CBS weren’t televising the Daytona 500.

Is it any wonder Fox’s NHL telecasts (a 2.3 rating after its first three weeks) and even the Westminster Dog Show (a 4.0 rating for two nights last week) have had higher viewership this year?

“The numbers are down,” says ABC Sports producer Charles Coplin, “but that doesn’t mean people are watching less college basketball. It just means more college basketball is on the air.”

Which, to a certain extent, is true.

Add up the ratings figures, and you get an 8.3, not too different from what NBC used to get when it was the lone national college-basketball outlet in the 1970s.

“You just have a lot more proliferation,” says Coplin, “so you really have a lot more choice.”

In an attempt to stem the tide, ABC has added a studio show to its telecasts (which are actually a time-buy by syndicator Raycom), hosted by John Saunders.

As an added wrinkle, Coplin brings in a coach Sundays as a studio analyst and then has the coach chat with the game analyst, usually Dick Vitale.

A guest analyst is something CBS has used for the past several years on its basketball studio show. This year, the network added “The Wheel” in an attempt to give those telecasts more of an NCAA Tournament feel.

But last week’s “Wheel,” which rolled through such games as Georgetwon-Syracuse, USC-California and Mississippi State-Oklahoma, did only a 1.9 rating - below the CBS average. According to one network official, the conference’s competing syndication deals are the problem.

Partially to blame, too, are the coaches. They all want to sell their recruits on TV exposure. Sometimes, in the case of smaller schools, the coaches don’t care if the only viewers are friends and relatives.

All of this should be a warning to the college football set. Next fall, there will be games on three broadcast and three cable networks each Saturday. Coplin sees the same withering of ratings there.

“More people get to see more games,” he says, “so the pie is sliced up differently.”

And a whole lot thinner.

Driving tips

Once again, CBS provided an exciting and enjoyable 4-hour telecast of the Daytona 500. But broadcasters Ken Squier and Ned Jarrett pretty much let the pictures of producer Eric Mann and director Bob Fishman tell the story.

First-timer Buddy Baker didn’t add much to the announcing crew. And Jarrett was a little too laid back about son Dale winning the race. At least Fishman captured much of the Jarrett clan on camera at the finish.

Teed off

For those who were angered by ABC’s abbreviated coverage of the Hawaiian Open playoff Sunday, be advised that the telecast was only allotted 2 hours to begin with. Unfortunately for the network, play was slow, and after 2-1/2 hours the plug had to be pulled. It wasn’t a wise decision, perhaps, but the network felt it had no choice.

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