Today's class in TV basketball will come to order.
Question of the day: If CBS Sports has bought the NCAA tournament for $48 million, how many games will it have to show in order to turn a profit? Answer: Fifteen, or four more than NBC aired last year.
The law of the marketplace in television says that the more you pay, the more you show. You need x number of hours to run y number of ads to make z number of dollars.
In this case, CBS' "loss" (it no doubt will recoup the $48 million over the three-year length of the contract) is our gain. For the next three weeks, the NCAA tournament is going to perform the equivalent of a slam dunk on other forms of TV programming.
"Seven or eight years ago, I can remember people coming in from the NCAA and saying, 'If you cover 10 or 11 regular-season games, we'll give you the tournament,' " says Kevin O'Malley, CBS' executive producer for college sports. "Television just came to it later than the basketball fan did."
Last year, basketball fans hailed NBC's tournament coverage as the ultimate. How does a network improve on perfection? Listen up:
* It blocks out time on weeknights as well as Saturday and Sunday afternoons. CBS will begin its full-court press Thursday and Friday with live late-night (11:30) telecasts of first-round games from Logan, Utah, and Pullman, Wash. The following Thursday and Friday, March 18 and 19, it will carry regional semifinal games at 11:30 (the first night live, the second via tape delay).
* It opts for a live tripleheader of second-round games on Saturday, March 13, from noon to 6:30 p.m. Last year, we saw a doubleheader in this time slot. Either our appetites have turned gluttonous or CBS has decided to rake in more ad dollars against that $48 million debt.
* It previews the tournament this weekend with what promises to be the most comprehensive coverage of the NCAA pairings yet seen on television. CBS aired a one-hour advance show, "The Road to New Orleans," yesterday. It will chime in with a live 45-minute special on the pairings following the Metro Conference championship game at 5:15 today.
"We think the announcement of the pairings is a news event, and we're going to treat it that way," O'Malley says. CBS will cut live to seven locations around the country as its reporters discuss the pairings with everyone from coaches to cheerleaders. Maps, brackets, charts: CBS will cover the story as though it were war in the Middle East.
The following facts are recited in order to bring comfort to basketball junkies and send a shudder down the spine of anyone who prefers "Love Boat":
CBS will carry games for eight days in an 11-day stretch between March 11 and March 19 . . . Because highlights of other games will be shown in and around games that are being aired, viewers who stay with CBS will be able to catch a glimpse of all 48 teams in the tournament and see at least some part of all 47 games . . . Every tournament game played on the weekends will be sent in its entirety to at least some section of the country.
You would think that boffo ratings account for all this, but ABC's "Wide World of Sports" last year nearly tied the second game NBC showed during the tournament semifinals on Saturday afternoon. This year, ABC's "Pro Bowlers' Tour" and "Wide World" have consistently trampled over regular-season college games on both networks.
It's probably a small triumph that CBS survived in the ratings with a limited and jerry-built regular-season schedule. Showing mostly interconference games that had no effect on league races, CBS drew an average rating of 5.5 (percentage of TV homes tuned in). NBC got a 6.2 for almost twice as many games.
One reason for CBS' near-parity could be the quality of its coverage. Everybody expected CBS' game production to look amateurish compared to that of NBC, which has distinguished itself on college basketball for years. Instead, CBS may have broken new ground.
Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that director Bob Fishman frequently shoots the action with a high corner camera. It gives folks a welcome breather from those relentless, high, middle-of-the-court shots more traditional directors love.
CBS also has gone in big for short halftime or pregame features that provide a sense of what's happening elsewhere in college basketball.
In one typical report, we not only learned why Kentucky won't play Louisville, but why The Sporting News put Louisville on the cover of its preview issue as the nation's No. 1 team. The paper actually chose both teams as cochampions, an editor explained, but Kentucky wouldn't pose for pictures with the Cardinals.
Another reason for CBS' success may be color man Billy Packer. In the biggest steal since Willie Sutton was sent up the river, CBS hired him away from NBC last summer. Packer lent instant credibility to the network, and as the season progressed, helped play-by-play man Gary Bender loosen up.
Whatever the quality or extent of coverage, though, there are some network executives who tremble at the thought of $48 million: an average of exactly $1 million per tournament game over the three years of the contract.
This leads to our final law in sports TV, as recited by a network executive who will remain anonymous:
"The girl you're not with always looks better than the girl you're with.
"In this business," he said, "something is always worth more when you don't have it. CBS had to have something. That's why Van (Sauter, former president of CBS Sports and current president of CBS News) went so high. He was given orders to spruce it up. There were two things out there: college basketball and college football. CBS had to get one of the two. It got both."