When D.C. public television showed college basketball


(AP Photo/The Buffalo News, Robert Kirkham)

I spent late Thursday night flipping channels between the Wizards on Comcast SportsNet, the Caps on CSN-Plus and four college basketball games on WUSA, TBS, TNT and truTV. I also jumped around and clapped my hands at the sheer wonderfulness of it all. (Note: Not a joke. I jumped and clapped. More than once.)

It was a particularly good night for sports-watching, but it still felt pretty normal, all in all.

Now read Tony Kornheiser, from 1986, writing about a day and age in which a D.C.-area public television station — Fairfax’s Channel 56, or “The Big 56″ — showed a shocking 125 college basketball games:

There is, unfortunately, a downside to all this college basketball. For the dangerously addicted there is the threat of what physicians call The Ignatowski Syndrome, a condition caused by visual overload resulting in a kind of stream-of-consciousness babble. [Mike] Baker defends his 125-game schedule, saying that it “may be overwhelming, but it’s not insane.” He is optimistic that “people are adult enough to know when enough is enough.” (Baker himself is in the studio for each game, drinking enough coffee to float a battleship; if they ever go to decaf at 56, he’s in serious trouble.) Not only has 56 eliminated sleep for a percentage of its audience, it also has eliminated the concept of sleepers. If you can see Cleveland State on 56, who can’t you see, Faber College? (Isn’t Faber still on double secret probation?)

This is a tale so bizarre I can’t believe I’ve never heard it before. Just as ESPN was beginning to dominate the demand for non-stop sports programming, there was a local rival in northern Virginia, a non-commercial station that ran pledge drives during every commercial break, during every late-game timeout and every halftime pause, in which Baker would beg for contributions.

“Because the area is such an amalgam of people from all over the country, and because there was so little basketball on. … I think the area was ripe for this,” Baker, the brains behind that operation, told Andy Pollin on SportsTalk 570 Friday morning.

And Channel 56 eventually expanded into the NCAA tournament, showing games on public airwaves that CBS and ESPN wouldn’t or couldn’t.

David Remnick seems to have been the first person at The Post to write about 56′s move into sports, back in 1984:

Channel 56, the nation’s only independent public television station, caters to Washington’s two major addictions: politics and, now, sports. …

While the networks and local stations concentrate almost solely on the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big East, WNVC purchased a regular-season and playoff package that features games of the Southeastern, Metro and Western Athletic conferences, giving a chance to hoop addicts to check out highly rated but little-seen teams such as Texas-El Paso. Channel 56 and its sister station, Channel 53 — which emphasizes educational broadcasting — are both independent of the Public Broadcasting Service, a unique situation. Naturally, the stations are poor, and depend on pledge drives, funds from local businesses and other sources for income.

“Last year, we paid $2,500 to broadcast the Division II final, because UDC was playing,” said Mike Baker, Channel 56′s director of development. “That’s huge bucks for us. We’ve gotten letters about the college games from Baltimore, Annapolis and Bluemont, W.Va. People seem to be reacting.”

Baker told Pollin that his quest to bring sports to local public television began with a James Madison game in the early ’80s, which helped light up the station’s four phone lines. So he expanded into tape-delayed ACC football. He got a UNC-Virginia game when Ralph Sampson was a national star. He sent telegrams across the country to bid on sports packages.

“I started calling anybody I could find,” he told Pollin. “I found a 62-game package down in Texas that featured some Southwest games, some Pac-10 games, some Big Ten games. It was a really nice starter package, and that’s how it all got started.”

How much did Channel 56 pay for those 62 games? Try $5,000, at least according to Baker’s memory.

“Isn’t that amazing?” Baker said. “Nobody’s ever asked me that, and I’ve never shared that information. But that’s all it was. And they were all out there. They were all sitting there. And I’ve often thought, God bless Lefty Driesell, because he could have put a stop to it all. I mean, they could have made a lot of noise, about me putting all these games up against ACC games, and Maryland never made any noise. They didn’t make any noise. Everybody allowed me to go ahead and find these games and put all these different games up against the ACC in the D.C. market. And God bless Maryland for letting me do that.”

Kornheiser’s description of the station back in 1986 — when it was already several years into this operation — reads like a dispatch from a different universe, where people who would watch late-night hoops were some kind of deviant obsessives.

Whatever else you thought of doing this Saturday, forget it. Whatever plans you made, cancel them. It’s imperative that you stay home and watch 56. As Crazy Eddie would say, “Our schedule is INSANE!” Starting at 7 in the morning, 56 is planning on televising the following games: the SEC semifinals and a WAC semifinal on tape, the Metro semifinals live, the WAC final live, Notre Dame-Dayton on tape, a Big Ten or a Pac-10 game (or maybe both) live, the MAC final live, AND!!!, on tape, the Mid-Continent final, but only if Cleveland State gets to the final. (I certainly agree with that, don’t you? Cleveland State is, after all, Cleveland State, but if some other teams in the Mid-Continent, like Valparaiso, Wisconsin-Green Bay, or Southwest Missouri State get there, who cares, right?) This TV schedule is subject to change, of course. They might add more games.

The person responsible for this is 37-year-old Mike Baker, who can be seen during timeouts asking for money. (Yes, money. “The Big 56,” as Baker likes to call it, is a public TV station. No commercials allowed. This season 56 should show more than 125 college games. The cost in acquisition and transmission will be about $150,000. Where do you think it gets the pledge money for these games, from Miller Lite?)

Three years ago, in his continuing effort to raise funds for the station, Baker dared to go into sports more deeply than any public station had gone before. “This is the nation’s first public superstation,” he declared. Where else, as Norman Chad has pointed out, can you see “More Magic Methods of Oil Painting,” a Korean language show, and Davidson vs. UT-Chattanooga without changing channels?

In order to better serve the community, 56 solicits viewer responses as to which teams to show (the Big East and ACC are largely unavailable), sort of like all-request radio. The most popular teams are Virginia Tech, Kentucky, Michigan and Kansas. The wide geographic disparity is partially explained by recognizing that Washington is a magnet attracting people from all over the country. It may be the only city in the East where a Cal-Oregon game would reach an audience other than Dick Vitale and the Brothers Narcoleptic.

I mean, the idea that people on the East Coast might want to watch Cal-Oregon — or even Cleveland State — was a joke. It was 25 years ago, and a truTV all-day marathon was impossible to imagine. Norman Chad also wrote about the upstart station for The Post several times, beginning in 1985:

In the first 68 days of 1985, WNVC will have televised 57 regular-season games, mostly from the Big Ten, Pacific-10, Southeastern and Metro conferences. WNVC will televise the SEC and Metro tournaments, plus part of the Western Athletic Conference tournament and the Atlantic 10 championship.

Last year, Channel 56 televised four NIT and five NCAA tournament games; Baker expects at least that many broadcasts this year. Virtually all of these games are live and unavailable for viewing elsewhere on local free TV.

Where else can you watch UCLA basketball nine times in January and February alone? (Then again, if you actually want to watch UCLA nine times, perhaps even WNVC cannot satisfy all your perverse needs.)

Now in its second year of basketball programming — it debuted a college football package last fall — WNVC buys the rights to the games from three syndicators: Katz, Lorimar Sports and TCS-Metro. The station’s cost for this season’s games is about $110,000, according to Baker. And therein lies his biggest problem.

As an independent though noncommercial station, Channel 56 receives no funding from PBS. It is dependent primarily on pledges and business sponsors. “But businesses don’t want to underwrite sports on public TV because they don’t get to run their commercial spots,” Baker said.

Thus, there was Baker, in his best cash-poor pose, asking viewers during every timeout of Wednesday night’s Illinois- Purdue game to pledge money. And there were folks out there — the ones who can name both reserve power forwards on Brigham Young’s team — calling in nickels and dimes.

“I can’t believe some of the places we get calls from,” Baker said.

Chad circled back to the station again in 1986:

Considering that area viewers can see several Big East and ACC telecasts each week, plus weekend offerings from CBS and NBC and (for cable subscribers) countless other games from ESPN and Home Team Sports, is there really a need for more college basketball on TV? Of course not.

But is there a desire on some folks’ part for more college basketball on TV?

Of course.

“We carry everything the other stations don’t carry and don’t want, and you can’t believe the reaction we’re still getting,” said Mike Baker, the Channel 56 director of development. “Public TV stations are a great market for an amalgamation of games from across the nation. The way I see it, why do people have to pay for everything? These people deserve to have games for free, for crying out loud.”

Two years later, Chad again wrote about the station’s embrace of the NCAA tournament, which had only just started to become a phenomenon.

Starting today at noon and going until Sunday at 7 p.m., the casual junkie essentially can watch 79 consecutive hours of college basketball (with a break here and there) and see most of the 48 first- and second-round games.

This is in part because of CBS, in part because of ESPN and, in Washington and Washington alone, in part because of WNVC-TV-56, the surrealistic, Fairfax-based public television station that defies commercial gravity. In fact, when Channel 56 programmer Mike Baker says, “Quite honestly, I think we have a better schedule than ESPN,” you don’t laugh or snicker, you go find a second TV to set up in the viewing area.

ESPN will present five live games today and six live games Friday, plus taped-delay telecasts in the early-morning hours. CBS opens with 11:30 p.m. telecasts today and Friday and gets the weekend to itself with tripleheaders Saturday and Sunday afternoons. And Channel 56 weighs in with four live games today and four live games Friday, plus several taped-delay broadcasts. …

Channel 56 remains the we-will-not-be-undersold, if-you-want-it-we-got-it, basketball warehouse. Baker buys from the NCAA games that CBS and ESPN don’t do live; because local commercial stations don’t want to disrupt lucrative network programming for games of remote local interest, none of them bid for the leftovers. Channel 56 is a public station without commercials, so it gets the games relatively cheap.

And, after all, if Kansas-Xavier weren’t made available at 3:30 a.m. Saturday on 56, wouldn’t your life feel a little bit emptier? As Nietzsche might have said in 1890 on the road to Berlin, there’s nothing better than doing nothing on a big college basketball weekend.

Chad later reported that “during WNVC-TV-56′s massive NCAA tournament first-round coverage” that season, Baker suggested on air “that CBS send Channel 56 a letter of gratitude and include in it a $10,000 check to the Fairfax public television station for boosting interest in college basketball.”

That particular party ended in 1991, as The Post’s Mark Asher wrote in 1990:

I confess. I watched 38 hours of the NCAA tournament live last week — 19 on ESPN, 19 on CBS (Sorry, Mike Baker, but Channels 53 and 56 aren’t on my cable system). I would have made the full 20 hours on CBS except I dozed off Friday night at halftime of the Loyola Marymount-New Mexico State game.

I’d like to do it again next year, but it’s not going to happen. The television landscape of the NCAA tournament will change dramatically next season when CBS becomes the exclusive carrier of games for seven years under a $ 1 billion contract. Goodbye ESPN. Adios Channels 53 and 56. So long NCAA Productions. Forget the all-night replays.

The rest you likely remember. Now, we don’t watch college basketball on public television. We watch it on truTV. And we watch every game, on every device, and can hardly imagine the alternative. But Baker can still say he was one of the pioneers.

“At the time I don’t think we were cognizant of the fact that we were making some kind of television history,” he told Pollin. “We just weren’t. And I don’t think any of us saw the onset of ESPN, the magnitude of it, sports broadcasting, all these channels, cable. None of us saw that.”

Dan Steinberg writes about all things DC sports at the DC Sports Bog.
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