ANYONE who has cast an eye at the sports pages this season knows that professional basketball is mighty big business. But bigger still are the television executives in charge of the CBS sports eye, whose tall network orders gave short shrift earlier this week to a local station's request to carry live coverage of Tueday night's National Basketball Association championship game. As fans here learned to their disappointment, that's what happened when the Washington affiliate, WDVM (TV-9), sought to carry the game live, in prime time, instead of a CBS movie. The network said no, what you see is what you get -- and it's movie now, game tape later.
There is no federal case here, because when it comes to big-league basketball, CBS calls the shots -- and the network takes a long, green look at ratings when doing so. If the championship series were between, say, New York and Los Angeles, you'd be talking bigger markets, and maybe even live coverage coast-to-coast. But this is May, and in network-land, that means "ratings sweep month," when the name of the game is maximum possible participation by viewers.
Still, Edwin Pfeiffer, Channel 9's vice president/general manager, interpreted a memo from the network as permitting live coverage of the game for any affiliates that chose to pay line charges. Mr. Pfeiffer also figured that viewers in Washington, which has its fair share of basketball fans, would prefer watching Houston and Boston go at it five-on-five instead of seeing "The Five of Me," a made-for-TV movie. NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien, seeking maximum league coverage, had even offered to pay the line charges for any station carrying the game.
But CBS explained that its confusing memo was meant to apply only to the "decisive" game in the best-of-seven series, and with the two teams tied after the first four games, the fifth game wasn't considered decisive. That turned out to be debatable when Boston insomniacs who stayed up for the tape broadcast saw Boston decimate Houston. As for the CBS decision, in any match between a local station and its network over basketball, pick the network players to control the courts -- it's their ball.